Rodney Dillard & the Dillard Band,
I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry
(Rural Rhythm, 2010; 2017)

As someone who can claim an intimate acquaintance with the ways of a rural small town -- I've lived in one a good, albeit not continuous, part of my life -- I grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show with something of a jaundiced eye. It can still make me laugh thanks to Don Knotts' comic brilliance and Griffith's exemplary ability as a straight man. Without them the show would have lapsed into saccharine sentimentality, which is what happened after Knotts' departure.

It shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but from time to time I meet a supposedly sophisticated urban dweller who, on learning where I live, immediately presumes that life there is like Mayberry. Let me clarify: The Andy Griffith Show's depiction of small-town culture is wildly unrealistic. It's the difference between show business and the real world.

Probably few living persons know that better than Rodney Dillard, a secondary cast member and one of the Darling family, a backwoods clan led by longstanding character actor, non-musician Denver Pyle, who would go on to portray Uncle Jesse in the execrable Dukes of Hazzard. In real life the Darlings were an established, Missouri-born but Los Angeles-based bluegrass band, the Dillards. (I would speculate that the fictional band's name took its inspiration from Erik Darling, a banjo picker prominent in the mid-century folk revival.) Rodney Dillard, who played the slowest-witted member of the already less than intellectually agile Darlings, was and is a guitarist, while his brother, Doug Dillard, handled banjo alongside Mitch Jayne (bass) and Dean Webb (mandolin).

By the latter 1960s the Dillards had evolved into an electrified folk-country-rock band. They broke up, to reform years later as a bluegrass outfit, and engaged in various projects solo and otherwise. Doug died in 2012. Married to respected Appalachian-folk musician Beverly Cotten, banjoist in the Dillard Band, Rodney perpetuates the family legacy, both with the music (some of it looking back to the Dillards' legendary trio of Elektra albums cut between 1963 and 1965) and with the Griffith association. Though they appeared on only six episodes, the Dillards as the Darlings left an enduring impression, even as few Griffith fans had ever heard of them except in their comic representation.

The wistful, half-seriously titled I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry, originally issued in 2010, reissued early this year, reminds us that for three years Dillard hosted a 60-second radio program dishing out homespun wisdom from the imagined lives of Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife. An evangelist when he's not performing or recording bluegrass, Dillard resurrects several of those shows, in which he tells the stories and draws the lessons with a genially light touch. Three of the songs are more recent and Mayberry-themed. There's also the hilarious "There Goes the Neighborhood," which Dillard wrote with Bruce Haynes.

Otherwise, most of the songs are freshly recorded versions he and his onetime partners did on the show. Traditional but cliche-free, the Dillards' early repertoire was remarkably strong in quality material, from well-chosen covers (mostly of oldtime numbers) to outstanding originals. I don't know how many times I've heard "There is a Time" (by Dillard and Mitch Jayne), but I can't imagine ever tiring of it: memorable lyrics, unforgettable melody, stirring concept. I imagine that when Dillard and Jayne wrote it, they meant to evoke the cycles that govern our lives. That's how I've always heard it, anyway. In the liner notes, however, the devout Dillard says it "is meant to inspire the sense of there being a Divine Plan and a perfect time for everything under Heaven." However it strikes you, it is surely among the greatest of all bluegrass songs. If there's such a thing as bluegrass heaven, it'll be playing there.

These may not be good times, or even close, but it is a comfort to know that the Dillards legacy, thanks to Rodney Dillard & the Dillard Band, lives on.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 April 2017

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