He wasn’t unlike many other college students, doubting his decisions about where he had landed and who he was doing without.
Rodney Dillard said he woke up one night at Southern Illinois University and just couldn’t shake the feeling he didn’t fit in.
“I have never been a joiner,” he said. So, he called his brother, Doug, who was at a different town. They talked about their futures.
“I said ‘let’s go play music,’” Dillard recalled. “Doug said OK. He quit his job and I sold everything I had.”
The two added two friends into the mix, Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne. This quartet of musicians was off to California. Rodney played the guitar while Doug was the banjo player. Dean was on mandolin and Jayne on double bass for this bluegrass band on the run.
They were The Dillards.
Dreams into motion
Unlike many others with oversized dreams, these guys did make it to California, Hollywood to be exact. They left their home state of Missouri in 1962 with a whopping $9.60 in their pockets. Dillard said they found odd jobs in Oklahoma City to earn enough money to roll into California.
“We all ended up getting into a car — a 1955 Cadillac with a one-wheel trailer,” he remembers. The car belonged to Webb.
The band already was getting established before they took off for California. The Dillard boys were born in Salem, Mo., and played in and around the St. Louis area. Webb was from Independence, Mo., and Jayne, Indiana. They had recorded albums before the westward trek.
But it was what happened in Hollywood that would launch them into national stardom. The Dillards got an audition on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Show us what you’ve got,” Dillard remembers Griffith telling them. He sat on the front row as the young musicians launched into their bluegrass sound.
After only 16 bars, Dillard said Griffith said, “That’s it.” He thought they had not gotten the job when in fact they were hired on the spot. They weren’t The Dillards on the show, however; Rodney, Doug and the others were called The Darlings. Dillard was 20.
Ironically, they were on only six episodes of the widely popular television series, from 1963-66. But tune your television into a station that plays these oldie sitcoms, and the Darlings most likely will grace the screen.
Landing in Branson
Today, Dillard is 76 and lives just outside Branson, Mo., with wife, Beverly Cotten-Dillard, and their Italian mastiff, Penny. Beverly is also a musician. She plays the clawhammer banjo and sings. On this day, they sat together on their porch overlooking the Ozark Mountains into Arkansas.
The dobro, bass and banjo are also in Dillard’s repertoire. He said his parents were his teachers. She appeared on “Hee Haw” and at Carnegie Hall. They performed together at a show at Branson’s Silver Dollar City for years.
He spent decades on the West Coast, recording albums, traveling and sharing his music. Of the original Dillards, he is the only one remaining. But, Rodney still performs as The Dillards, with various recording artists.
Back in the 1970s, the band toured with Elton John and The Byrds. Dillard has been friends with John Hartford for decades. He recently did a concert with John McEuen, founder of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Don Henley lists the Dillards as one of bands that affected who he became as a musician.
Dillard even has a new CD coming out. Ricky Skaggs is featured on a song.
Blount County is on Dillard’s concert tour, as he will be here on Saturday, March 23, at 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Friendsville. Admission is free, but a love offering will be taken.
“I am the last man standing,” he said of the original band. “I am on the ‘Get Me While You Can Tour.’”
Seeing past the drama
“The Andy Griffith Show” is best know for the antics of Deputy Barney Fife, Sheriff Andy Taylor, Ernest T. Bass, Floyd the Barber, Gomer Pyle, Aunt Bee and Opie Taylor, but also its rural, small-town values. Dillard said he was raised Presbyterian, but left that in his rearview mirror, not because of where he was going.
“I have strong beliefs,” he said. “When I went to Hollywood, I ran away from the church thing because I saw the hypocrisy. To a young person seeing what a person says and then does ... I talk about that in my ministry.”
But even as he was living the fast life out on the West Coast in the 1960s, Dillard said he managed to stay out of trouble, away from drugs and the ruination of many talented performers.
“I feel I stayed away from the drug culture because of the way I was brought up with good values and work ethic,” he said. “Also, I know God was fighting for me when I didn’t know him.”
Dillard said he became a Christian after his wife witnessed to him before they were married.
His concert on March 23 will be part music, part storytelling, part memories and maybe even some new songs. Because he will perform at church, he will share his faith journey, but not in a preachy, convicting way. He said you can’t beat people over the head with your set of beliefs and expect them to join you.
“That’s like trying to explain a sunset to a blind man,” he said.
A band that ebbs and flows
He will have a full Dillards band with him when he comes to Friendsville. Membership in the band has changed over the years, but the same sounds spill forth. “It’s music the way it should be,” Dillard said.
Sam Bush (New Grass Revival), Herb Pedersen (Desert Rose Band), Don Henley (Eagles), Chris Hilman (The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers) all have contributed to The Dillards over the years. Dillard calls it a musical stew.
This two-time Grammy nominee and inductee into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame has more than 50 years in the recording business. His music has been produced by recording labels Elektra, Flying Fish, Vanguard, Raven and Capitol. He said his passion these days is to share his Mayberry values in today’s world viewpoint.
The passion for music has never left; neither has his sense of humor or thankfulness for the life he’s had.
“I believe that God gives everybody a gift,” he said. “Whether you find it or not, whether you use it or not is totally up to you. He has given us all the gift of life.”