Front Porch

The Dillards Celebrate an Old Road New Again

The Dillards did an album called Wheatstraw Suite, which is one of my favorite albums. The first thing I did when I came to America was to go and see them.
—Elton John

Rodney Dillard

There is a friendly and inviting warmth to Rodney Dillard’s voice, a youthful enthusiasm that defies his 78 years on the planet. During a recent phone conversation with the San Diego Troubadour, the veteran progressive bluegrass veteran was driving along the countryside near his home in Branson, Missouri with his wife, Beverly Cotton-Dillard. It’s a natural place to live out his days where there’s always a new morning on the way, a new joy around every corner with movement toward opportunities and a tender reminder of the grace and gifts that God has given Rodney Dillard during his lifetime. The Ozarks moves through his blood. It can be heard in the dignity and respect when he describes his love for this land and its people. It is where he began playing mountain music as a child. It’s where he’ll spend his final years.

Rodney Dillard isn’t close to being finished, however. When he talks about the new album, Old Road New Again, from the progressive bluegrass band, the Dillards, he sounds like a man in his 20s. He is that excited about his latest project. Indeed, it is his voice that rings most familiar on this fine album. His vocal talent has helped deliver the legacy of the Dillards. It is full of character, soul, and authenticity. It is also flexible enough to lead choral vocal arrangements across the landscape of new genres, including Americana, country-rock, and folk music.

There was a feeling of fulfilled enthusiasm in the young sound of his on this day, as we talked about all of the doors and windows that are opening up in his life.

“I feel so honored and grateful to be able to put this new album out. So many friends came along. Don Henley from the Eagles sings harmonies and sings some lead on “Old Road New Again,” he says.

Old Road New Again is the crowning achievement of a groundbreaking career in country-roots music. “You know back in 1968 we did this album, Wheatstraw Suite, that broke all the rules of bluegrass music. We put strings on it, went electric, used drums, and put layered vocals on it. People still remember it.”

A song from Wheatstraw Suite.

Indeed, Wheatstraw Suite has held up nicely over the years, along with its follow up, 1970’s Copperfield. People who praise the influence of these two albums include Elton John, Don Henley, Steve Martin, and the Avett Brothers. They are filled with original songs, unique first-time-out folk-rock covers like the Beatles “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” A major change and contrast to traditional bluegrass are the layered vocals turned into choral harmonies, backed by stunning innovative instrumentation. A prime example of this is the Beatles’ beloved “Yesterday” from Copperfield, arranged in a capella four-part harmony that sounds like the finest Baptist choir this side of heaven. Both albums were a breakthrough for the Dillards as well as for bluegrass, a genre where the value of the music is gauged by how little the music has changed. For listeners of the Dillards between 1965 and 1970, a new road for bluegrass music had arrived.

Rodney Dillard, as one of the founders of the progressive bluegrass/country rock band, it’s been over 60 years, with a long stretch of an old road that has included the ups and downs of a group that has been too often underrated and over-looked. Joc Holzman, a music legend himself, who signed the band to Electra Records when they arrived in L.A. in the early ’60s, has said, “The band added its own personality and feel to now classic albums like Back Porch Bluegrass and Wheatstraw Suite, the latter of which features orchestra and drums and remains to be one of the most innovative bluegrass albums of all time.”

The Dillards: Dean Webb, Doug Dillard, Mitch Jayne, Rodney Dillard.

Doug (left) and Rodney Dillard

The Dillards may be the greatest Americana band you’ve never heard. Too often they are ignored by historians and documentarians as is the case with two recent films about the Los Angeles music scene centered on Laurel Canyon. They were there. But they’re nowhere to be found in these films. Not only were the Dillards in middle of it all, they were influential in shaping the direction of the future music of artists like Crosby, Stills, & Nash; the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; and folk icon, Arlo Guthrie. In a recent conversation, Arlo remembers his time with the Dillards including the album 32 Cents/Postage Due, an album of Woody Guthrie songs with the Dillards recorded in their Branson studio.

“The music the Dillards were playing in the late 1960s seems timeless and great even by today’s standards. I was lucky enough to get to know Rodney and Doug back in the Troubadour days through my late wife, Jackie. She introduced us and we remained great friends ever since. Doug played a lot on the early albums I recorded for Warner Brothers, but it wasn’t until June 1998 (30 years later) that I was able to get the Dillards together in a recording studio in Branson, Missouri and record an album of my father’s songs that I was working on. The album was released in 2008. During that time, I was able to bring the Dillards to the stage with me at Carnegie Hall and let them do their thing before a live audience. That was a magical night and one of the highlights of the 50-year tradition of our annual Thanksgiving concerts on that prestigious stage.”

The Dillards came to L.A. in the ’60s during the Troubadour era when so many soon-to-be legendary artists migrated from Greenwich Village to Los Angeles in search of record deals and the promise of hit songs. This period of L.A. music history spawned household names like the Mamas and the Papas, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell.

The band arrived during a time when opportunities came quickly and easily. Their timing was perfect. After moderate local success in Salem, Missouri, they took to the road and made their way to California by way of west Texas. Within weeks of their arrival, they had a record contract and signed with the famous William Morris Agency. Before they could pick up a guitar, banjo, or mandolin, they were invited to audition for the popular Andy Griffith Show. They were to play a family of mischievous deadpan mountain musicians known as the Darlins. Andy Griffith heard the authentic echo of the music of his North Carolina home where the show was set. He fell in love with them and soon became a jamming partner with them. “It was just a few weeks after we came to L.A. that we got a call from William Morris saying we had the audition for the Andy Griffith Show. It was crazy. There we were on the set at Desilu studios at the Mayberry jail. We started playing our music and Andy was ready to sign us right away.”

A clip from the Andy Griffith Show.

As one of two genre-bending bands in the bluegrass world (the other being the Country Gentlemen), they challenged the fiercely held traditional culture of Kentucky’s bluegrass music, which sought to replicate the old timey music handed down by their elders. But the Dillards were rebels from the start and in 1964, they recorded Bob Dylan’s song “Walkin’ Down the Line” on a live album. It was a break from the traditional material and a point of identification with the world outside of the insular bluegrass culture.

By 1968, Rodney Dillard’s ambition to break through, with an album that fully broke out of the box of traditional bluegrass, was accomplished. That’s how Wheatstraw Suite came to be. It is the first time a bluegrass band went electric and brought strings into the mix. Today, Rodney still has scars from the Great Blue Grass Wars of the ’60s and ’70s. “They were brutal,” Rodney said, with a sense of resolve that comes from knowing you’ve done the right thing in spite of opposition. After all, he was the catalyst for an album that was closer to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper than any record from the world of bluegrass.

Today, there’s still some annoyance in Rodney’s voice as he the describes the reaction to the experimental Wheatstraw Suite. If it is considered experimental, then it is one that has paid off over time. And, like its cousins Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, it is pleasingly accessible. It has also aged well. Today it is considered a classic in the Americana/roots music genre. Two years after the release of Wheatstraw Suite, Bowling Green, Kentucky gave birth to the New Grass movement with the help of Sam Bush and Bela Fleck. They were well-versed in the Dillards’ music as well as Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. Progressive bluegrass finally saw the light of day.

In recent times Rodney Dillard has witnessed the original members passage into a mortal sunset. Nothing was harder to take than the death of his brother and Dillard co-founder, Doug, a dynamic innovator of the banjo, who is sometimes described in terms similar to Hendrix on rock guitar. Mitch Hayne’s, the songwriting bass player and mandolinist Dean Webb have all passed away, now leaving Rodney to carry on the name, memory, and is especially capable of making an old road new again. He sometimes calls himself the “Last Dillard Standing.” But rather than doing the impossible of trying to match the three original members, Rodney has wisely enlisted his wife, Beverly Cotton-Dillard, who plays a mean clawhammer banjo, sings, and is a fine songwriter in her own right.

These days Rodney Dillard is breathing in renewal as the winds of change bring the aptly titled Old Road New Again. This collection of songs is all about living in the moment and the experience of redemption and renewal in lives devoted to love.

“I am so grateful for the chance to record this album and with so many good friends joining in,” Dillard said. “This album is a bookend to Wheatstraw Suite. Of course, I called Herbie (Pedersen was in the Dillards during the late ’60s), Don Henley (Eagles), Bernie Leadon (a founding member of the Eagles), Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush (a mando-playing founder of the New Grass Revival) joined in.” He was also able to include songs by the original bass player, the late Mitch Jayne, who died in 2010. For Rodney Dillard, taking the band title one more time is a way of showing love, respect, and honor for the founding members.

Rodney Dillard, as the driving visionary behind the band’s creative direction, believes Old Road New Again is an extension of the Dillard’s Wheatstraw Suite approach, pushing the traditional envelope of Bluegrass music. With its release, Rodney Dillard, in the name of the band that began to grow within him when he was a young man, has completed the circle he began with Wheatstraw Suite in 1968. Old Road matches Wheatstraw in its easy-going flowing imaginative approach, musical inspiration, and originality.

Old Road New Again is among the best studio work of the Dillards’ illustrious career. It is one of the best Americana albums of 2020 from one of the most important country bands of the last 60 years. There is a pop-friendly undertow that doesn’t compromise the roots of the genre. Indeed, like their beginnings, Old Road New Again touches on folk, country, Americana, and country rock with a sense of joy and grace. This collection of songs shines through our troubled times with an authentic hope and optimism. Songs like “Common Man,” “Earthman,” and “Take Me Along for the Ride” are about continuing the road we’re on with the knowledge that renewal is always near. The title song gives a clever, condensed history of the band and their times with plenty of familiar names dropped along the way. While every song fulfills its target potential, the love song, “Always Gonna Be You,” is a bright and shinning diamond among a fine treasury of American songs. Rather than including a traditional gospel song, the band has included a song that is intimate, confessional, and carries a warmth that transcends religion.

Rodney Dillard with his wife, Beverly.

As our conversation came to and end, Rodney and Beverly commented about the beauty that surrounds them in Branson, Missouri. Of course, it’s impossible to talk with anyone today without the current topics of the pandemic and the unrest. This album is a remedy for our times. Our conclusion is that paradise surrounds us in our connection to the land and to the music we draw from it. This is where the Dillards began. It’s where we all find our deepest connection. We need only stop and look, as Rodney and Beverly Dillard did during our interview.

In the 52 years since the Dillards recorded the breakthrough catalyst for the progressive bluegrass movement, Wheatstraw Suite, Rodney Dillard has traveled from his roots as a young musician, exploring the world outside of his Ozark home to a journeyman artist who has traveled the world, found redemption and real love. He is one of the major musical pioneers who brought country-rock and bluegrass music to a larger audience. He is an ambassador who has carried the best of America’s music to the world. Old Road New Again finds he has helped the Dillards to be still going strong with their feet on the ground and their eyes toward heaven.

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