about | contact us | advertising | subscription services

Rodney Dillard

Rodney Dillard
By Bill Conger

“I was working on a song about being bored,” IBMA Hall Of Fame member Rodney Dillard says, settling in for a phone conversation from his Branson, Mo., home. “The older you get the more things you see repeated,” explains the 78-year-old musician. “You see the same things with a little change, but it’s basically the same thing, because that’s the human condition.”

Over a career that has spanned close to sixty years, the lone surviving member of the original Dillards band tries his best to be anything but bored. A two-time Grammy nominee, Dillard has earned his right to rock away in retirement, but that’s not a reality he wants. “I love it—all the many, many years I’ve spent on the road working.”

While he may not be a hard road-dog now, he continues to perform in select theaters with new Dillard members: George Giddens (fiddle), Gary Smith (bass), Cory Walker (banjo), and Rodney’s wife Beverly on banjo and voice. He writes and records new music and is authoring a book titled Nuggets From The Horse I Rode In On. On April 22nd, 2020 (Earth Day), he released the new single “Earthman.”

“We are all on this Earth facing the same challenge, and this song reminds us that what really matters is mankind’s search for love, truth, and peace,” he says about the first track from the album Old Road New Again. Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, and Tim Crouch make guest appearances on the project, along with Don Henley and Bernie Leadon from The Eagles and Herb Pederson, whose harmony vocals with Rodney produced the signature Dillard sound. The album was recorded on Two Old Dogs Music that Dillard formed with recording engineer and producer Bil VornDik and was released on Pinecastle Records in August.

He is also working on another album of songs related to the 1960s TV sitcom The Andy Griffith Show that helped catapult The Dillards’ success. Known as The Darlings on the program, the quiet stoic-looking bluegrass band appeared only on six shows, and for that short stint, Dillard says Griffith treated the band well.

“He said, ‘You guys aren’t going to make any money being actors, but I’ll get as many of your songs on the air as I can.’ He knew that’s where it would pay off. No residuals at the time for actors, but with ASCAP, every time you get a national television show playing your song, it’s very good to you. We had an average of five songs per show on the six shows that we did. Andy could have had us do all public domain songs. We got all our songs in, and it has never let me down for the last sixty-some odd years.”

Dillard and his wife have written the new album Songs That Made Charlene Cry. “On that show they would say, ‘Let’s do “Dirty Me, Dirty Me, I’m Disgusted With Myself.” Charlene would say, ‘No Pa. That always makes me cry.’ Andy would say, ‘Well, let’s do “Dooley.”‘ On each one of those episodes, there were one or two songs that made Charlene cry with funny names.” Some of those songs include “Don’t Hit Your Grandma With A Great Big Stick,” “Will You Love Me When I’m Old And Ugly,” “Tow Sack Full Of Love,” “Slimy River Bottom,” “Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin’,” “Put Your Money In Your Shoes,” and “It Won’t Get Wet.”

Rodney continues to keep the memory of the Mayberry days alive with a musical and humorous stage recreation of the simple country life. The concerts, some of which are Christmas themed, feature Maggie Peterson (Charlene Darling), Dillard and his band, and David Browning as the town’s deputy.

“We set the scene with couches like it would be in Andy’s house on Christmas Eve. We did have a guitar pull every once in a while on the set. We took that and amplified that as to what it would be like if it were Christmas. Everybody steps up and does something—a reading or song. I tried to keep the Mayberry songs that we did on the show because that’s what people want to hear.

“I’ve always believed in entertainment. It’s great that you can extrapolate on your instrument and get up there and play like jamgrass, but how long can you entertain people? Maybe their life is only 2% music, and the rest of it is trying to survive and support their children. I want to entertain these folks. I want to make them forget what’s going on on the planet today rather than say, ‘Look what I can do.’ I want to show them a jewel of how they too can be happy for just a few minutes. That’s my duty. That’s my purpose.”

Dillard Legacy

Raised by a fiddle-playing dad and guitar-picking mama, Rodney and his brother Doug were baptized in the soulful music of the Missouri Ozarks. In 1962, the two men joined with Dean Webb (mandolin) and Mitch Jayne (stand-up bass) to form The Dillards, loaded up a well-worn 1955 Cadillac, and took their unique sound to California.

The Dillards played in clubs such as the famous Ash Grove, and it wasn’t long before Jac Holtzman (founder and president of Elektra Records and the William Morris Agency) discovered the band. Not long afterwards, record producer Jim Dickson took notice and Holtzman signed them to a multi-album deal. Dillard remembers some New York critics turned up their noses at the band’s version of bluegrass music.

“I never thought that there would be any kind of protocol procedure on how to play music period,” says Dillard. “I thought people would add to what they already thought they knew musically. I think those New York guys would probably go see a bluegrass band. They would put on the work shirts and the leather vests and want to listen to it. That’s what everybody does really. It’s the musical process. To see them start judging other people who had any kind of attempt at creativity was just a no-no to me. I’ve always rebelled against that. It’s more adventurous to blaze a trail than it is to follow a path.”

That trail took The Dillards to many important stops like Desilu Studios in Hollywood, Cal., for a career-making audition with Andy Griffith. “It’s almost been like a schizophrenic career because people identify us as The Darling Family, yet we had another career as a musical group who entertained and traveled worldwide. It took us to people who would never listen to bluegrass music. Even in my hometown, when I would walk through the local teenage hangout, people would hold their nose and go, ‘Yee Haw!’ making fun of me.”

Although, the joke was on them as The Dillards’ approach to the music garnered respect and more nationally-recognized success. The Dillards scored the opening act on Elton John’s first major American tour and landed guest spots on television’s The Johnny Cash Show, American Bandstand, Playboy After Dark, Hootenanny, and The Judy Garland Show.

“It’s amazing the shows that we were on that bluegrass musicians couldn’t be on at the time. That was a wonderful thing for us. It exposed us to another whole audience. It enabled us to work all these years without necessarily having to work in the confines of bluegrass. A lot of people wouldn’t accept bluegrass back in the ’60s. We went to California because we wanted to say something different than what was being said. At that time, unless you were Flatt & Scruggs, bluegrass was used for furniture commercials or on The Opry as a break to go to commercial. It was like the unwanted stepchild of country music.”

The Dillards put their creative spin on bluegrass, electrifying the traditional instruments and adding drums, steel guitar, and orchestra. “I felt like maybe we could break into something I always wanted to do. I wanted to integrate the music just because I wanted to, not because I thought it would make me any more money. As a matter of fact, it was taking a huge chance of losing a bluegrass audience. That’s the direction I went, and I’m glad I did. My mother always said, ‘People are like turtles. If you don’t stick your neck out, you don’t get anywhere.’

“I was very defiant. I felt like I had a purpose, and I wanted to do this. I never looked back. I suppose you could play bluegrass, get yourself a bus, and hit all the bluegrass things. There’s a ceiling that promoters put up, unless you can break that ceiling with a crossover kind of album. They keep bluegrass players under the ceiling so they can hire twenty bluegrass bands and have a three-day weekend. Back then, I always felt like the promoters didn’t really treat bluegrass people very well.”

Rodney found the band’s niche was with a progressive bluegrass sound and a more sophisticated sense of humor. “People thought we were unusual because we had this humor going that was rural, but it wasn’t ‘snot’ jokes. ‘You might think it’s a booger, but it’s snot.’ We didn’t do that kind of burlesque comedy with the blacked-out teeth and the funny ties. We had a different approach to the humor where it was acceptable to people who were unfamiliar with bluegrass music. We never worked country music venues. We usually worked places back then that were the major places. We were playing to a different audience. It was rural humor that wasn’t hokey or corn pone. That’s how we were able to survive.”

In 2009, the IBMA inducted The Dillards into the Hall Of Fame. Their legacy, Rodney says, will be left to those who listen to their music.

“Everything is in the perspective of the person who hears it. A guy wrote in a letter to Rolling Stone to say that he was in a foxhole in Vietnam. He said the only thing that kept him from getting up, running, and getting mowed down was a song that we did that said: You’ve got to be strong and keep on hanging on and have faith. He kept playing that over and over, and it saved his life. To me, no matter what happens, that was worth it all.”