Rodney Dillard, A True Living Legend Returns to the John Hartford Memorial Festival 2016

Born in Salem MO, Rodney Dillard was one of three sons born to Homer and Lorene Dillard. Rodney and brother Doug, who passed away in 2012 went from local St. Louis area bluegrass pickers along with our festival namesake, the late John Hartford, to wind up on the set of the Andy Griffin Show as a bashful hillbilly band known as The Darlins. Rodney’s song, “There is a time” became a national hit and the Dillards, as the Darlins brought bluegrass a new wider audience. The Dillards who set a mark in bluegrass history with band member Mitch Jayne’s “The Old Home Place”, Rodney’s “Dooley” and many other songs which are now bluegrass standards, took bluegrass to another level. “You had to drive so many miles to find other pickers who played bluegrass. It was in the 50s and any time you heard of someone playing bluegrass, you would seek them out. People were coming from Arkansas and all over to St. Louis to find work and they brought their music with them.These guys were old school bluegrass, where if you didn’t do a certain thing in a certain key, you weren’t playing bluegrass, that’s how me and Doug and John(Hartford) learned. I got to see John’s evolution, coming from how he grew up, coming out to the farm and living like us, he loved it. He loved the river, he loved the music, he developed his own style just like Doug and I did. John started out as a single performer, he did his own thing, he developed his own style, which is what I believe successful people do.” Rodney told me in a recent interview. “As kids, our friend, John Hartford would come home to the farm on weekends. He and Doug played banjos, you know, and we’d pick and record on an old sound on sound tape recorder, and go play bars and stuff in East St. Louis. It’s part of the evolution of the process, starting out you play most anywhere. We were kids and we loved the music and we listened to Flatt and Scruggs.” John founded his own band with Norman Ford and Don Brown. “We all knew each other, everyone would come over to our house and pick and have these jam sessions. I had just entered my first year of college at Southern Illinois University and I thought, this isn’t me, I really don’t fit into this box.
I called Douglas, my brother, I was 17, I said, ‘I gotta get outa here, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Let’s go play music somewhere. He said, ‘Okay’. He quit his job. He was an accountant for a shoe company. We had a friend who was a disc jockey and he said, ‘now wait a minute’, so we went in with Dean Webb and we cut an album in this guy’s house, Peter West, and we cut it in the foyer of his great big house in St.Louis,  we played it for Mitch Jayne and he said, “Guys, I think we can do something.” They brought in Dean Webb and formed the band. They decided to go to California with only nine dollars and fifty cents. The trip stopped in Oklahoma City when they ran out of money, “sleeping in an oilfield in the car, we took any kind of job we could get, we were starving, we ended up auditioning for this guy who owned a bar, and he gave us a job. He said, ‘How much do you want, and we said, ‘would $200 be too much for all four of us? And he wound up giving us $300. 1963, I think. We made enough money to make it to L.A. We walked into a club called the Ash Grove, which at that time was the Petri dish of the folk culture. We just pulled out our instruments and started playing and the owner came out and said, ‘You can’t do this here’, come up on stage and do it.” The did just that and the crowd fell in love with the Dillards. There was a producer there by the name of Jim Dickson who went on to produce the Byrds and organize the Eagles. And this other fellow, Jac Holzman who owned a record company called Elektra Records, and we cut a deal for a major album. And Variety says “Andy brought in these weird looking guys who play this funny music funny music from the Ozarks. They called our management at the time, and called us over to audition, that’s what we did and the rest became bam bam bam, and we started doing every major television show at the time, got really hot, that’s really how our career started.” They say success is 50% hard work and 50% luck. Well, make the equation add up to 150, and throw in another 50% for pure talent. In the early 60s, the folk mecca was the Ash Grove, 8162 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. Founded by Ed Pearl in 1958, named after the popular Welsh folk tune, this now historic icon in Americana Music history played host to the likes of Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and a young trio known as the Dillards. The Ash Grove closed in 1973. The Dillards were established, forging new ground in Bluegrass while John Hartford made his own scene in Hollywood, thanks to Rodney urging him to come on out. Rodney helped John find a place to live when he moved out to do the Glenn Campbell show. The Dillards helped open a major door for John Hartford, leading to John’s stint with the Smother’s Brothers, paving the way for John to reach that special level of achievement with his song “Gentle On My Mind”, (http://www.johnhartfordmemfest.com/about-john-hartford). They recorded three albums together.
Years fly by. I was able to catch Rodney over 30 years ago at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, his current home. I most recently caught up with him to talk about what he is up too. Rodney, at 74 years old, is still going strong. He remained good friends with John Hartford, spending many years touring together, playing the same dates. Don’t expect a traditional bluegrass album. This is Rodney Dillard doing what he wants. This whole album is totally different. Rodney is at a point in life where writing and recording is now focused mainly on what he really thinks about the problems in the world. “It’s probably going to tick some people off, on the left and on the right. I just want people to know where I stand in life about things...I’m making a political and a spiritual statement. I’m not pandering..I never have which is why I’ve never had a number one hit. I’ve had steady record sales throughout the years and that means more to me, rather than be like a picked flower that at the end of the day, wilts. This is what I live and will die by, but it does have some incredible playing on it.” “Old Road New Again” which features new music written by the Dillards and featuring artists such as Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush. Rodney will be performing songs from the past Hartford/Dillard albums and also will be playing songs from this new album, yet to be released. Plans are for this album to be released at the 2016 John Hartford Memorial Festival, along with this limited edition retro-poster designed just for this event.
“It’s going to be exciting to see what people think about this album, this music. With this album I’m doing like I’ve always done, I’m grinding up sacred cows for hamburger. We’re getting a lot of attention right now which is unusual for older folks like me.” Keep up with Rodney’s future plans, and learn more of the history of this living legend, still making great music, still hitting the road only this time with a different purpose. http://officialdillards.com/