Dean Webb passes

Bluegrass mandolin legend Dean Webb, of the Dillards (aka The Darling Family on The Andy Griffith Show) fame from Salem, Missouri, passed away on Saturday, June 30, 2018. He was aged 81. 

Roy Dean Webb was born on March 28, 1937, in Independence, Missouri. 

Webb grew up surrounded by a family that played music. As a teenager he heard the Bill Monroe’s revved-up version of Blue Moon of Kentucky and Webb’s love of bluegrass music was born. That prompted him to acquire an old 1950s-era Gibson A-50 mandolin and join his bluegrass-playing cousins. 

However, his first professional gigs were as a stand-up bass sideman playing country music in the rowdy honky-tonks that are scattered across the rural Midwestern area. 

By the early 1960s he was playing mandolin with Lonnie Hoppers and The Ozark Mountain Boys, working show dates and regular television appearances in Springfield and in Joplin, Missouri. It was at about this time that Webb became acquainted with Doug (banjo) and Rodney Dillard (guitar). 

During that same period (1960-1961), the trio did some home recordings in St Louis; 10 tracks to which Webb later over-dubbed the bass. These recordings were released in 2006 on the erroneously-titled Early Recordings, 1959 (Varèse Sarabande, Varèse 302 066716-2). 

In 1962 the Dillard brothers and Dean Webb teamed up with Mitch Jayne (stand-up bass) and formed The Dillards. Their fall 1962 concert at Washington University, St Louis, was recorded and 16 tracks were released by Varèse Sarabande also (Varèse 302 066 057-2, November 1999). 

In November that year they loaded up the truck – actually a 1955 Cadillac – and headed to California in search of more regular work, arriving in Los Angeles, supplemented by income from two-month’s-worth of shows at the Buddhi Club in Oklahoma City, with nothing but a badly-battered car and their instruments on their backs. 

Soon they began playing in LA clubs like the famous Ash Grove, after which their fortunes improved. They were discovered by Jack Hoffman, founder of Winston Music Publishers, and Norman Malkin, a record producer and artist manager who also owned Lansdowne Music. The two men had become co-publishers and partners and, together, they signed the young bluegrass group to a management deal. 

Within two weeks The Dillards caught the attention of Jim Dickson, a record producer, and then Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records, who gave them a multi-album contract. 

The first of these was Back Porch Bluegrass (Elektra EKL 232, released in May1963). 

That was followed by Live!!! Almost!!! (Elektra EKL 265, September 1964), Pickin’ & Fiddlin’, with Byron Berline (Elektra EKL 285, February 1965), Wheatstraw Suite (Elektra EKS 74035, December 1968), and Copperfields (Elektra EKS 74054, December 1969). These last two albums featured additional orchestration, what Webb has described as a bit of “sweetening”.  

Other albums of note are Roots and Branches (Anthem ANS 5901, February 1972), Tribute to the American Duck (Poppy PP-LA 175 F, 1973), The Dillards vs. the Incredible L.A. Time Machine (Flying Fish FF 040, 1977), Homecoming & Family Reunion (Flying Fish FF 215, 1981), Let It Fly (Vanguard VHD 79460, 1991) and Take Me Along for the Ride (Vanguard VCD 79464-2, 1992). 

Webb played bass on the all-instrumental album 12 String Guitar/Folk Blues and Blue Grass (World Pacific ST 1812, 1963) that show-cased a young Glen Campbell playing 12-string guitar. Collectively – Campbell, Rodney Dillard (guitar), Doug Dillard (banjo) and Webb – were called the Folkswingers. 

In 1972 The Dillards played on Elton John’s first tour of the U.S.A. 

In 1988 the original Dillards line-up reunited for a series of performances and there were other reunion tours in the 1990s, all helping to keep their name alive in the bluegrass circles. The original band appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002. 

Perhaps their biggest claim to fame though is their appearances on The Andy Griffith Show in which they performed musically as members of ‘the Darling Family,’ a fictitious name for a family of North Carolina mountain hillbillies. 

The Dillards, who were spotted by a member of Andy Griffith’s talent agency, made their first appearance on the show in October 1963, and in so doing introduced bluegrass music to many viewers who had never heard of the genre. The band made five more appearance on the show, the last of which was in 1966. 

As well as appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, The Dillards have had television exposure on Nashville Now, The Johnny Cash Show, Hollywood a Go-Go and Hootenanny, among other programmes.

Webb, playing what has been described as “some killer mandolin,” helped The Dillards to play a major part in modernising and popularising bluegrass music. They were among the first bands to electrify their instruments. Also, their influence up and down the west coast impacted the development of southern California folk rock and country-rock styles.  

Individually, Webb’s mandolin playing influenced Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’ decision to play the instrument. 

His harmony singing and arranging skills were considerable, talents put to good use in helping the Byrds to sort out the complicated triad harmonies on Mr. Tambourine Man, their first major hit.  

Among 14 or so song-writing credits for Webb is the bluegrass standard The Old Home Place, co-written with Mitch Jayne. Another of his songs is Hey Boys. 

The Old Home Place 

In 2009 Webb formed Missouri Boatride bluegrass band (named after a line from the movie The Outlaw Josie Wales). 

Wayne Rice, a long time (42 years now) bluegrass DJ from San Diego, California (KSON-FM) remembers Webb with affection … 

What an enormous influence he had on musicians out here. I don’t think I ever heard anyone play the mandolin quite like he did. He held it like a machine gun and just blew us all away. He was a really nice guy … the quiet one in the Dillards. But one on one he loved to talk and swap stories. I haven’t seen him in a while. Last I talked with him was at the IBMA Awards when the Dillards went in. He was real excited about his new band Missouri Boatride. RIP Dean Webb.

Webb worked with various incarnations of the Dillards for 30 years. 

In 2009 The Dillards were inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. All four of the original band were present to receive the honor at the IBMA Awards Show in Nashville. 

Rodney Dillard is now the only surviving member of the Dillards. 

R.I.P. Dean Webb 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.