By Richie Unterberger

Over the course of their lengthy career, the Dillards would venture into numerous styles, including folk-rock and country-rock, with particularly innovative forays into the latter category. They'd started out as a bluegrass group, however, and bluegrass would remain at the core of their music, even as their blend of several genres broadened their listenership far beyond the folk and bluegrass audiences. Nowhere was their approach more in the solid bluegrass vein than on their first three Elektra LPs, two of which are combined onto one CD in this reissue.

     Although their earliest Elektra album, 1963's Back Porch Bluegrass, was their first record to gain wide distribution, the two brothers in the Dillards already had several years of recording experience by the time the LP came out. Doug Dillard and his younger brother Rodney started playing together in Missouri bands back in the 1950s, and while both were multi-instrumentalists, Doug would be most known as a banjo player, and Rodney most celebrated as a guitarist. In the late 1950s, they made some home recordings (with young fiddler John Hartford among the backing musicians) that found release on obscure singles (and an EP) billed to the Dillard Brothers on the small K-Ark label. Some other tapes from the time, recently issued on Early Recordings 1959, feature not only Doug and Rodney, but also mandolinist/singer Dean Webb and (as arranger) Mitch Jayne. With Jayne assuming the bass position, the Dillards became a quartet, moving to California in 1962 (though yet another recording predating the move, a summer '62 concert, found release in 1999 on the  CD A Long Time Ago—The First Time Live!).

    Things happened quickly for the group when they arrived in Los Angeles. Jamming onstage at the Ash Grove folk club with fellow bluegrass group the Greenbriar Boys, the Dillards were seen by Jim Dickson, who offered them a recording contract. Elektra was in the process of considerably expanding its West Coast operations, and Dickson was a key figure in that development, producing folk albums for the label by the Dillards and Hamilton Camp (also producing recordings for the Modern Folk Quartet during the same era for another company, Warner Brothers). Even before Back Porch Bluegrass came out in 1963, the Dillards had made their first appearance (as members of the Darling family) on television's The Andy Griffith Show, guesting in that role on the program on several more episodes over the next few years.

    While there was much traditional about the bluegrass on the Dillards' debut LP, in some respects it wasn't as traditional as some purists would have liked. For one thing, half a dozen of the tracks were original tunes, though most of the others came from  traditional sources. And as ludicrous as it might seem today, the record also attracted some criticism for not being authentic. "We had troubles when our first record came out with the bluegrass people," Rodney Dillard told me in 2001. "At that time, everybody was wanting to put it in a museum, keep it the way it was, just look at it once in a while, and protect it so it didn't change. And we came along and our first album, Back Porch Bluegrass, had echo on the record. One of the guys from one of the little back-east [folk] rags said, 'Since when did they have echo chambers on back porches?' Well, that guy'd probably never been off his block, because you sit back here on my back porch right now, and you get nothing but echo, because I live up on a side of a mountain. I came from a rural area, grew up on a farm with no electricity and no bathroom until I was fourteen. That music had been around just like the dogs in a yard; I grew up with it. So from the very beginning, I had problems with the traditionalists."

    Surprisingly, Dillard expressed some disappointment with the record in the book Everybody On the Truck! The Story of the Dillards (written by Lee Grant with the Original Dillards). "I hated Back Porch Bluegrass when I first heard it, and to this day I will not play the album," he declared. "I simply wasn't ready to be a lead vocalist and I didn't like the way my voice was recorded. Everybody else in the group performed well, but I didn't like my part." Vocal numbers weren't the only items on the LP, however, which also featured several instrumental selections, three of them written by Doug Dillard. The most famous and familiar of the album's songs was the closing "Duelin' Banjo"—the same tune which, when played (as "Dueling Banjos") by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell as the theme to the movie Deliverance, would rise to #2 in the charts in 1973.

    For their next LP, the Dillards would opt to record in concert, putting out Live...Almost in 1964. By the time of their third Elektra album, 1965's Pickin' and Fiddlin', the group was both feeling and contributing to the winds of change. Their producer, Jim Dickson, was playing a behind-the-scenes role in the birth of folk-rock as mentor and co-manager for the Byrds. The Dillards played their own unheralded role in that transition, with Dean Webb helping teach the Byrds their vocal harmony parts for "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Bob Dylan cover that ignited the folk-rock explosion. The Dillards themselves were thinking of expanding into different and even electric sounds, and Dickson credits the Dillards as an important catalyst in getting him to move in a more progressive direction.

    "I was not so much looking for a fusion between folk and rock, but ways to enhance folk music," he elaborated in the author's 2002 book Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution. "At first, using jazz musicians Red Mitchell, Jimmy Bond, Bud Shank, Billy Higgins, and Frank Butler, and sometimes cello. I wanted more music: countermelodies from the bass instead of just playing changes. This was followed by [David] Crosby [playing] with [guitarist] Tommy Tedesco, [drummer] Earl Palmer, [and bassist] Ray Pohlman. The above musicians and Glen Campbell [with whom the Dillards played on two Dickson-produced 1964 LPs credited to the Folkswingers] were among those I made experiments with, looking for sounds to support folksingers. Working with the Dillards convinced me that better players were possible, as well as [of] the virtues of group singing."

    Given  that the Dillards were both feeding the birth of folk-rock and soon to move into folk-rock on their own records, it's a little surprising that Pickin' and Fiddlin', recorded with fiddler Byron Berline, is an avowedly traditional album. "We owed [Elektra] another album, and we weren't too happy with 'em," explained Webb to me in a 2001 interview. "'Cause we didn't think they were doing anything with our material, so we just did that third album where we got a friend of ours named Byron Berline. In a way, it was a good album for what it was, and it helped Byron get started." Indeed, Berline would record more than a dozen albums as a solo artist, though he's most known to rock fans for his guest appearances on records by the likes of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Arlo Guthrie, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, the Band, James Taylor, and the Rolling Stones (that's his fiddle on "Country Honk," from the Stones' Let It Bleed).

    "But we just kind of did more or less some traditional material on there," added Webb. "We didn't go to any trouble with any written material, particularly because we didn't feel our record company was going to do anything. We were getting a lot of criticism from a lot of the New York types, who said we were all a bunch of phonies and whatever, and didn't know anything about the country side of the whole thing. It was kind of a, 'Well, we'll show you what we can do with this sort of thing.'" In John Einarson's Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock, Rodney Dillard was yet more direct: "That wasn't a record made for anyone but the traditionals. We got completely hacked to pieces by them. So we said, 'Okay, screw you guys, we'll make an album, and we'll play it right up your ass!,' so we did." And he did mean play—all of the tracks are instrumental, despite the group's formidable strengths as singers and harmonizers.

    Having established their traditional credentials beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Dillards then ended their association with Elektra, moving into folk-rock with a couple of obscure mid-'60s singles on Capitol. When they rejoined Elektra in the late 1960s (minus Doug Dillard, who joined ex-Byrd Gene Clark to form Dillard & Clark), both they and the label were ready to let loose with full-blown, pioneering country-folk-rock. That story is told on two other Collectors' Choice Music reissues, Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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