Rodney Dillard talks Earthman and The Dillards

Rodney Dillard has been an important part of American music this past fifty some years. In the ’60s, he helped introduce traditional music to a new generation as a member of The Dillards on The Andy Griffith Show. Rodney was the goony-looking guitar player. He also sang on the initial recording of what is perhaps the most iconic bluegrass song of all time, Old Home Place, which was written by Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne for their debut album in 1963.

Then in the ’70s, he and The Dillards helped spearhead a nascent country rock scene developing in southern California. Not only were the later Dillards, and their more experimental sound, a major influence for younger artists coming into the scene, Rodney literally provided many of them room and board in his spacious Laurel Canyon home.

Younger bluegrass lovers might be forgiven for underestimating the influence The Andy Griffith Show had on American television viewers during its eight-year run. It ranked in the top ten shows in every year, ending the final season as #1, and was nominated for and won many Emmy Awards during that time. Not only that, its success was the impetus for a number of additional programs with a homespun rural flavor, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, all of which succeeded on TV.

The original Dillards, Rodney on guitar, his brother Doug on banjo, Mitchell Jayne on bass, and Dean Webb on mandolin, appeared on 6 episodes of the show as the Darlin’ family from 1963 to 1968. They played 14 songs in full or in part, often with the main Andy Taylor character joining in, selected from bluegrass standards and original numbers the Dillards had written. These episodes were extremely popular with fans, and launched The Dillards to a huge surge in popularity that soon found them regular performers on the college circuit, where the ’60s folk music boom made urban listeners hungry for authentic mountain music.

But even though The Dillards moved into a similar artistic space as other young artists like The Byrds in the 1970s, Dillard never lost his passion or missionary zeal for traditional bluegrass and mountain music.

When we spoke yesterday with Rodney, he reflected on the many achievements he has been a a part of in a career that still continues.

“It’s been an interesting run, and I sure have enjoyed everything I’ve been able to do. I’m still learning things about what we did back then.

I just feel so blessed… just a kid from the Ozarks who had the chance to travel all over the world making music.”

The reason for our chat was the impending arrival of a new Dillards album later this year, and a recently-released debut single, Earthman. Since Rodney has recorded a number of projects under his own name, I wondered why use the band name for this one.

“The Dillards have been the Dillards since my brother and I were born. I decided to keep the name to honor all the guys who have been a part of it over the years. I figure as long as I am alive and going, The Dillards are alive and going. It’s a family.”

Rodney also shared a bit about the song…

“Bob Milsap wrote this 20 years ago. I met him when I first moved to Branson. He built a studio here, and we got to be good friends. He had written a book called Earthman, and I recorded the song as a demo for Bob.

My wife, Beverly Cotten-Dillard, suggested that I redo this one. We had to hunt around a bit to find the old tape, but I’m really happy with what we recorded.”

The single, and the full album, are being released by a new label created by Dillard with recording engineer and producer Bil VornDik, which they call Two Old Dogs Music.

“I called Bil one day when I realized that I had an opportunity to record this album, and asked if he wanted to produce it. We named the company that way because we are two old dogs, and we both have old dogs!”

Rodney is supported on the album primarily by the currently touring Dillards: George Giddens on fiddle, Gray Smith on bass, Cory Walker on banjo, and Beverly Cotten-Dillard on banjo, fiddle, and voice. But it is rife with guest contributions from many of the artists who claim Rodney and The Dillards as influences. From the Nashville/bluegrass world came Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, and Tim Crouch, and from the west coast, Herb Pedersen plus Don Henley and Bernie Leadon from The Eagles.

“The record is titled Old Road New Again, taken from one of the songs, Make This Old Road New Again. Don Henley sings it with me, and it’s pretty much the story of The Dillards. The lyrics include stories about The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris.

Another one I really like is Always Gonna Be You. It’s a love song, and me and Beverly sing as a duet. She plays clawhammer banjo, and it has a string quartet – just banjo and string quartet.”

We then touched on the impact of the shutdown on current artists, and he mentioned that he has also lost almost all of the live appearances that had been booked to coincide with the single release. That touched off a lovely philosophical ramble…

“A wonderful thing about bluegrass is, we have so many incredible young people in the music, and they play so well. I feel so sorry for all these young people who are laid off from their bands. They play so well, and I always encourage them to take what they have learned from the tradition, and make it their own. Let the museums hang on to the old stuff, and create something new with your music. 

This new record is not a swan song, but something I’ve wanted to do for several years. I’ve been blessed to have a career where I could go on without having to scratch out a living. I live in a beautiful place on a mountain in Branson, and I get to fish and play with the grandkids.

I gotta tell ya… when I first got the opportunity to do this, I told John Holzman with Elektra Records that I wanted to make this the bookend to the Dillards Wheatstraw Suite album [1968]. A lot of bluegrass people didn’t like it back then because we used orchestration. At the time bluegrass wasn’t as popular as it is today. It was just something I wanted to do, not something I thought much about.

Holzman says he loves the new record. He said he keeps it in his car, and loves to listen to it when he’s down.”

Wheatstraw Suite was a major turning point, not only for The Dillards, but for many other young artists who felt a pull towards authentic, traditional music at the end of the ’60s. By today’s standards, it sounds mostly bluegrass, but they used pedal steel guitar and drums on most tracks, even before The Osborne Brothers electrified in 1969. But young pop music listeners just heard it as sounding like The Byrds, who had just brought Gram Parsons into the group after pushing David Crosby out. Country rock was about to be a thing.

“Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Albert Lee… they were among the people who called and told me how much they loved Wheatstraw, and how much it had influenced their music.

Back then we all hung out at The Troubadour. That was where things started. We would sit around the bar and sing. The Eagles, Ronstadt, Emmylou… they were all there.”

During a separate interview, VornDick shared how excited many of the prominent artists had been to be part of this album. To appear on a record from The Dillards, for them, was too good to be true. He even mentioned that Henley, who had flown in to sing on one track, asked to be able to sing on another as well when he heard the roughs.

In closing, Rodney wanted to emphasize that the new project is a collection of things he cares about, and hopes people will see it that way, and not him coming across as preachy or condescending.

“I wanted to share something, but not pontificate. Not shove anything down people’s throats. 

I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that play better than me, and people who are smarter than me.

I’m a Christian, but I wasn’t until I was 49 years old. The album reflects a lot of my values, just the way I see things. Looking for truth, and a little bit of love.”

Looking for truth, and a little bit of love… the last line of the chorus from the single.

Earthman is available now wherever you stream or download music online. Expect to hear more about the album soon as well.

Rodney says that he is using the down time until he can start touring again to complete a book project.

“It will be called Nuggets From The Horse I Rode In O,  a book I’ve been writing this past two years. At this point, it’s just vignettes of my life in music, and the people I have met. I have to figure out how to put it into book form.”

That, like Old Road New Again, is definitely something to look forward to.

Share this:

About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.