Rodney Dillard & the Dillard Band,
Don't Wait for the Hearse to Take You to Church
(Rural Rhythm, 2011)

If bluegrassers Flatt & Scruggs -- products of mid-century commercial country music -- and the 1960s urban folk scene sort of adopted each other, the Dillards were a creature of that scene. A hip, knowing, wisecracking outfit, the Dillards may have been raised in the Ozarks, but they found their way at first chance to the Los Angeles music world. Made up of Dillard brothers Rodney (guitar) and Douglas (banjo), along with Mitch Jayne (bass) and Dean Webb (mandolin), the band cut three well-regarded bluegrass albums on Elektra between 1963 and 1965. When Douglas Dillard left to form a short-lived country duo with Gene Clark, Rodney pioneered onward as the Dillards, no longer a bluegrass group but an innovative country-rock band. A 1991 retrospective on Vanguard, There is a Time, showcases 29 of the highlights if you don't know the story and the sound.

Rodney Dillard is back doing bluegrass concerts and records. As a onetime cast member he also is a keeper of the Andy Griffith Show flame, the subject of both his previous Rural Rhythm release and a syndicated radio show broadcast mostly in the South. Those who recall the Griffith show will remember him and the other Dillards in their recurring role as the Darlings, otherwise speechless yokels who could be counted on to haul out their instruments to sing ballads and pick mountain melodies. (Character actor Denver Pyle, who played their father, was not a musician; thus, he blew into a jug.) About a decade ago, Rodney, with his wife and musical partner Beverly Dillard, embarked on a career as an evangelist. As evangelists the two promote -- you guessed it -- "Mayberry values."

As one who knows something about the subject, I will be blunt here: the Andy Griffith Show represents life in a rural small town as accurately as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies recreate the historic Old West. Dillard, of course, is perfectly aware of that; that's why his last CD is titled I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry. Even so, from time to time I encounter ostensible adults, the guileless spawn of big cities, who apparently believe that somewhere out there beyond the suburbs, life is like Mayberry. No, it's not. It's like life, except with fewer stores.

While I have reservations about both Mayberry values and evangelical theology, I have no trouble liking Don't Wait for the Hearse to Take You to Church. I've never met the man, but at least on his albums, Rodney comes across as a personable, low-key kind of guy who harbors sincere convictions but doesn't wallop you over the head with them. Most of all, he has a way with a song, and Don't Wait has a supply of engaging ones. There's even a clawhammer banjo here and there, for example on the wonderful Carter Family standard "Gospel Ship," among my all-time favorite Appalachian sacred numbers. There are also the lovely, never unwelcome hymns "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," "Heaven" and "Softly & Tenderly," plus the solid bluegrass-gospel title tune. All in all, 10 songs, plus at the end four short Mayberry-themed spoken homilies, in case you've been wondering what Barney Fife is up to these days.

I'm glad Rodney Dillard & the Dillard Band are here. I look forward to more.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 September 2011

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