The influence of the Dillard brothers on the ever-evolving trajectory of modern bluegrass can never be underestimated. One of the prime ensembles that ushered in the merging of that traditional tapestry with a contemporary sound, championed by such ’60s standbys as the Byrds, the Burrito Brothers, the Eagles, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (whose John McEuen penned the liner notes for this new album), The Dillards shared an insight and impact that lingers even now, well over 55 years later.
It’s been awhile since the band offered anything new, although there have been compilations and re-releases to fill the chasm in-between. That makes the aptly titled Old Road, New Again cause for celebration. Rodney Dillard, the sole surviving member of the original ensemble, describes the new album as a bookend of sorts to the band’s landmark 1968 masterpiece, Wheatstraw Suite, and indeed it’s an apt analogy. That early effort in particular offered full evidence of The Dillards’ forward thinking trajectory, while incorporating more elaborate instrumentation and a broader sound to their particular palette. In its wake, it garnered the praises of other artists, among them Elton John and Don Henley, the latter one of a number of special guests paying their respects here, among them, Herb Pedersen, Bernie Leadon, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon and Cheryl White.
Indeed, it’s evidence once again that The Dillards were somewhat more sophisticated than The Darlings, the hillbilly alter egos they portrayed in those old black and white episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.
Once again, Old Road, New Again is chock full of bracing melodies, from the rollicking, wide-eyed perspective of its opener, Earthman, the rousing My Last Sunset, and the upbeat take on the ageless standard Save the Last Dance for Me, to the heartfelt homily, Always Gonna Be You, and the powerful plea to the nation made through a revisit to their classic, Take Me Along for the Ride. Mostly though, this is a celebratory set of songs, one that reaffirms The Dillards as a contemporary combo fully capable of maintaining the devotion of those who prefer sounds of a vintage variety, as well as younger audience drawn to their daring and diversity. And while the album’s sole original song, Funky Old Hen, finds the group indulging in some superfluous silliness, it, like the rousing revelry shared in Sweet Companion and The Whole World Round, rekindles that populist appeal always so essential to their sound.
Ultimately, Old Road, New Again signals a revival, not only of the Dillards’ dedication to form, but also to a sound and circumstance that brought bluegrass to an eager new audience. As the new album confirms, it’s a road that continues to unwind with promise and possibility. When, in the title track, The Dillards declare “This old road is new again,” they’re undeniably accurate in both form and function.