Further into rock territory: Rediscovering the Dillards’ blazing ‘Roots and Branches’ 1972 album
By the time the Dillards went into the studio to cut fifth album Roots and Branches in late spring 1971, a change in the weather was afoot. Led by founding members Mitch Jayne, Dean Webb, and Rodney Dillard, the band had exited Jac Holzman’s Elektra label for the second and final time, landing on the independent Anthem Records. Famed rock producer Richard Podolor — Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Alice Cooper — readily accepted Dillard’s challenge to craft a mainstream pop rock record.
The exquisite harmony group had quickly ascended to the foremost rank of the Southern California country rock scene, counting the Byrds, the Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Elton John as ardent admirers.
Their previous two albums, Wheatstraw Suite  and Copperfields  garnered the best reviews of their career from Billboard and Rolling Stone but remained niche, word-of-mouth sellers.
A primary contributor to those albums was vocalist-songwriter-banjoist Herb Pedersen, who had replaced original member Doug Dillard. But Pedersen was newly married and aghast at recording all night at the behest of Podolor, so the group deputized Billy Ray Latham. Another line-up change occurred as drummer Paul York joined the band on a permanent basis, signaling a seismic shift to electric instrumentation.
Although Roots and Branches may have been more rock influenced with drums, electric bass, keyboards, and electric guitar — the Dillards dropped the orchestral arrangements so prevalent on Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields— it still contained the acoustic, bluegrass elements that made them so beloved when they made their national debut on The Andy Griffith Show as reticent Appalachian hillbillies the Darling Family. Bluegrass purists have plenty to savor on songs like “Big Bayou,” Dillard’s compositions “Redbone Hound” and “Billy Jack,” and especially an a capella rendering of the folk staple “Man of Constant Sorrow.” They are advised to skip past the unabashedly pop “One A.M.” and Dillard’s raucous rendition of Paul Revere and the Raiders bassist Keith Allison’s “Get Out on the Road.”
The on-again, off-again sessions for Roots and Branches lasted well over a year at Podolor’s American Recording Company in Studio City, California. Given these factors, it might have seemed utterly impossible for the Dillards to deliver their best-selling album, but indeed they did. Distributed in May 1972, Roots and Branches caught folks off-guard by crossing over into the Billboard pop album chart, remaining there for an impressive 18 weeks but advancing no further than No. 79.
Opening for Elton John on his fourth American tour no doubt further engendered Roots and Branches to a record-buying college demographic. John had originally caught the boys performing at the legendary Troubadour club two years earlier during his debut California visit. It’s likely Roots and Branches would have charted even higher if Anthem hadn’t been controversially dissolved.
Roots and Branches takes a backseat to the Dillards’ three years spent on the Griffith Show and their classic Elektra tenure, albums which have never gone out of print since Elektra is owned by the Warner Music Group conglomerate. Roots and Branches has only been reissued once by the United Kingdom-based Beat Goes On [BGO] Records on a two-fer combining the underrated 1973 follow-up Tribute to the American Duck.
To remedy this unfortunate injustice, the third installment of a wide-ranging interview with Dillard arrives below, along with a few parting shots from mandolin maestro Webb. Dillard divulges intimate anecdotes about all 10 cuts on Roots and Branches. You won’t believe which song on the record is one of his daughter’s all-time favorites. A hilarious anecdote about tracking the background vocals on “Sunny Day” is not to be missed. Dillard also clarifies whether he plays any of the songs in concert and why he hasn’t recorded with Podolor again.
Dillard also confirms that a dedicated longtime fan has sent him a tape of an early ’70s San Diego gig featuring the Dillards in an electric setting. And did you know that the Dillards had first crack at a composition by singer-songwriter Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam? Fate had other plans, and it became a bonafide smash for Stevens.
The Rodney Dillard Interview, Part Three
How did the Dillards get to tour with Elton John in 1972?
We were playing a club called the Troubadour in L.A., which is a good hangout. Everyone wanted to play there at least once a year. Elton came in one night to check out the club, and he came back and saw us. The English people were very aware of us in the late ‘60s.
[Author’s Note: The pianist landed on American shores on August 21, 1970. Immediately after checking in at the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, he attended the Troubadour — his first American concert would occur at the club four days later — and excitedly caught the Dillards’ set. Their opening act was Longbranch Pennywhistle — a duo consisting of future Eagles founder Glenn Frey and Eagles hit songwriter J.D. Souther].
I knew who Elton was at that early stage of his career. I remember when he came out with Tumbleweed Connection . I loved his song, “Country Comfort,” featured on that great record. “Tiny Dancer,” the Honky Château album  — all excellent music.
Elton’s reps called our manager and asked us to open for him, and we quickly replied, “Okay.” It was a perfect opportunity for us to gain additional rock fans, and we were readying our album, Roots and Branches, for release. We only toured with Elton that one time during his fourth American tour [April 27 — May 16], but it was a lot of fun. He came onstage and sang with us, too.
As a matter of fact, I’ve got a live album that somebody recently sent me that we recorded in the early ’70s in San Diego during the Roots and Branches electric era. It was recorded the proper way, and I’m thinking about releasing it. It was wild. We rocked out pretty good.
The rock-influenced Roots and Branches  may be my favorite Dillards’ album.
Mine, too. Some of our bluegrass fans didn’t care for that album at all, probably. But the music fans loved it. In fact, Roots and Branches was one of our biggest sellers and highest charting — it broke the pop charts with a bullet [No. 79]. It was a lot of fun recording it.
You know, my music was always so eclectic from bluegrass. The record label [Anthem Records] found Richie Podolor, and he wanted to produce the album. They asked, “Do you want Richie Podolor?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never had anybody like that produce.” Richie produced Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Alice Cooper, and Blues Image.
I worked with him for nearly two years on that album. I would have to fly back and work on the album while we were out on the road. We would work and stay in the studio for three days at a time, and he never slept. He was one of those people who didn’t sleep. His mother said he’d always been that way.
I learned so much about production value from him. You can overproduce, add too much stuff. Just like you can over paint if you’re an artist. A lot of the stuff you hear on the radio today is over painted [laughs].
Anytime you change the sound of the original sound of the instrument, you mask it electronically. You add all these elements to it that makes it un-natural. That’s how you get your ears trashed. You can listen to music so long you get ear fatigue.
That’s why the acoustic is still organic enough that it’s soothing and doesn’t biologically start bifurcation in your body. I love the simplicity of going back to grass and acoustic music. I’ve always been a fan of John Prine and folks like that because of the fact their music was simple.
See, you can take a guitar when you record it, and if you record it right, it will sound so full and take the place of an orchestra. If you record an orchestra and don’t produce it right, it will sound like a cheesy organ. It’s all in how big of the waveform you want. It’s too technical…
You can take a mandolin and make it huge, make it fill everything you need and do the dynamics you need. You don’t have to plug in your amp and record a guitar three or four times and EQ/side chain it to make it sound that way.
Who were the musicians on the record?
Richie and I played guitar. I played rhythm and lead on many songs, sometimes on dobro. I had an old ’50s Telly [Telecaster] that is all over the album. I played it for the first time on Copperfields two years earlier on a song called “Brother John.” When you hear the little jazz guitar break, that’s me on my Telly.
Richie had a Fender Broadcaster that was made even before the Telecaster. So we were both playing vintage instruments. Another guitar present on a few Roots and Branches tracks is my Gibson ES 335. One of the first songs it appeared on was “Sundown,” the instrumental that closes Copperfields.
Billy Ray Latham [misspelled “Lathum” on the sleeve credits] was on banjo and vocal harmonies, and Dean Webb on mandolin/vocals. Bill Cooper, Richie’s good friend and engineer, played electric bass.
Paul York was our consistent drummer [1969–1979], and he is on the record. A protégé of Richie’s also played drums with Paul on the album. I can’t remember his name, but he was a little skinny fella. He did some sessions for Three Dog Night. He wasn’t listed in the album credits, so there is still some confusion.
As for Mitch, he sang on occasion [definitely the bass part on “Man of Constant Sorrow”], but I don’t recall him playing stand-up bass on anything. Mitch was present at the sessions, especially the songs we wrote.
Really, the only time Mitch played a little electric bass was when we toured with the Byrds for one month in 1965. We rented our own airplane and everything. Mitch was still playing his stand-up bass when we toured with Elton. When he left, we went strictly to electric bass.
The only album where Mitch played bass throughout was Live!!!!Almost!!!, our 1964 live bluegrass/comedy LP on Elektra. To illustrate a bit further, our first album, Back Porch Bluegrass, had a black jazz bass player named Jimmy Bond, a great guy. I wanted that jazz, push the beat kinda feel for the music, because Doug and I both did that. That’s why it worked so well instrumentally — Jimmy fit right in.
See, that’s what I don’t understand about people saying, ‘Oh you can’t play this music, you can’t play that note, he’s a jazz player’…that just doesn’t mean anything to me.
Please share your memories about each track on Roots and Branches, beginning with “Redbone Hound.”
I was driving to a job — the Dillards had a show somewhere — and I wanted to express how you could write a rural country song from experience. So I wrote it in the car. The only way I could remember it was to sing the words to whoever was driving. By the time I got to where I was going, I wrote the words down. It took maybe 15 to 20 minutes for me to write it.
The wild electric soloing you hear as the song fades out is Billy Ray Latham’s [he replaced Herb Pedersen] banjo going through a fuzz tone. By the way, we did that first. The wah-wah pedal and the chorus effect are present, too.
“Forget Me Not”
Bill Martin wrote this beautiful ballad; he’s quite a writer. He composed “The Door into Summer” with Chip Douglas for the Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. album [Dillard then sings the opening line, “With his fool’s gold stacked up all around him, from a killing in the market on the war…”].
Sure, we could have cut “Door into Summer,” but since the Monkees had already recorded it, we never did. Bill was living at my house when he wrote that one. Bill and I also wrote “The Biggest Whatever” together [on Wheatstraw Suite]. He later penned the screenplay for the popular 1987 comedy film Harry and the Hendersons.
It was probably the most commercially-sounding song on the album, along with “It’s About Time.” We designed it that way on purpose. Two of my daughter’s favorite songs recorded by the Dillards are “One A.M.” and “Close the Door Lightly” [on Copperfields]. Songwriter Paul Parrish did an admirable job on this one.
Written by Shel Silverstein, this tune was one I liked. I can’t remember who came up with it. We were always looking for songs — it didn’t matter if I wrote it, just as long as we liked it. I played a recorder, a woodwind instrument similar to a flute, on it.
It was easy for me to reach that high note at the end of the song [the line is “I’m going home”]. I went into a head tone. You have a chest tone, and then as you go up in the vocal register, that’s a head tone. Similar to when someone yodels. I have a real strong falsetto.
“Get Out on the Road”
Richie played it for me first, but I had heard it before somewhere. It was written by Keith Allison, a Paul McCartney look-alike who appeared numerous times on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is TV show and later joined Paul Revere and the Raiders on bass [in 1968].
I really liked the song, so we did it. I came up with that little electric guitar lick that opens the song [Dillard goes “Deedle-di-dayahh…”], and I play lead throughout. We just built around it and worked out the arrangement. There’s mandolin and banjo breaks on that record, too.
Although Gib Guilbeau [Nashville West, Flying Burrito Brothers] wrote the song, I most likely first heard it on an album by my friend Larry Murray called Sweet Country Suite in 1971. I also sang on that album. Folks tell me it sounds like a song I could have written, and I wholeheartedly agree. Larry was a great writer in his own right.
He was born in Gram Parsons’ hometown of Waycross, Georgia. Larry went out to L.A. and had his own career as a writer. He was on Capitol for awhile with his band Hearts & Flowers, which also included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. Then he became the head writer for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and also wrote for awhile on The Johnny Cash Show.
“I’ve Been Hurt”
It was a good song written by Gary Itri [he played at times with Blues Image, Three Dog Night, and Roger Miller]. He later wrote “Smile For Me” on American Duck.
That’s actually Richie playing a B-3 Hammond Organ at the end of the song, not a synthesizer. There aren’t many keyboards on the album. I played keys on some of the later albums. You know, we played around a lot on Roots and Branches. I remember us being in the studio for hours just poppin’ corks out of jugs to see what kind of rhythm sound we could achieve.
It was about a kid leaving home and going to L.A. to try to make it. The second song I wrote for the project, part of it was autobiographical and part of it was observational — creative license. Kids would come into town and get hung up in that particular culture and lose their way. It became the only A-side released from the album. Richie is playing lead on classical guitar.
That was a tough one but very fun to do [laughs]. You have to remember, it was recorded in the days before you had the ability to hit a keyboard key and play the thing over and over — loop it. You had to do it for real. Those hypnotic “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’s” you hear us singing on the track — I was just messin’ around doing that part, and Richie went, “Hey, let’s do that.”
So we harmonized — Dean, Billy Ray, and myself. You had to keep singing it, and it got unbelievably funny after awhile. We were looking at each other while we sang, and we could hardly get through it. You do “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” for five minutes and see what happens [laughs]. Written by Jack Conrad and Gary Wilhelm, Richie was responsible for the classical guitar on it.
“Man of Constant Sorrow”
This traditional folk song was first recorded 100 years ago [by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky], but it’s been around longer than that. Of course, we all got it from Ralph Stanley.
I was sitting in a booth putting vocals on a track. While I was waiting for engineer Bill Cooper to get the echo correct for the track, I started singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” A cappella. Just messin’ around, very impromptu. Richie exclaimed, “That’s going on the album!”
“It’s About Time”
Chip Douglas [a bassist and producer for both the Turtles and the Monkees] wrote it. Richie would pop his guitar and bend the neck to get that rwhuuurr sound. We did all kinds of weird stuff, but it was always a lot of fun.
I have no idea why we didn’t release it on the album. We released “It’s About Time” in advance of the album as a single [it became the Dillards’ only song to break into the Hot 100 at No. 92 in August 1971], so I guess we thought the fans would get more value for their money.
The only way you can hear it is on an mp3 ripped from the original vinyl single. It’s a terrible-sounding copy. If we could locate the master, it would be a different story. All I’ve got is the 45 — no wait, I don’t even have that anymore.
Did you have a good experience during your sojourn with Anthem Records?
Anthem was a subsidiary of United Artists. We signed with them because it was a small label, and it was founded by Ted Feigin and Lee Lassiff, who originally had White Whale Records. We had recorded two singles for White Whale in 1969, including “One Too Many Mornings.” After the Turtles disbanded [their biggest moneymaker], White Whale was phased out.
Being on Anthem wasn’t the best overall experience for us. When Roots and Branches started climbing the charts, Feigin and Lassiff got in legal trouble. Feigin got an offer to jump to Columbia Records, and he was in some hot water with his partner. Other personal problems, including drugs, caused a rift.
So Feigin and Lassiff had a parting of the ways, and Anthem was dissolved while the record was happening. The distributor then stopped pushing Anthem Records. My luck. It didn’t take very long before the album went out of print [nearly 25 years later, Beat Goes On Records in the UK finally re-released the album, paired with American Duck].
I don’t even know who owns the masters for Roots and Branches. I’ve talked to Richie about it, but he only has a few of the masters. Like everything else, they’re lost somewhere, floating around Hollywood. Who knows where it is. It would take awhile to track them down, but I would definitely be interested in locating, remastering, and making them available to the fans.
Regardless, I became exasperated and signed up with United Artists, the mother company. Tribute to the American Duck resulted in late 1973, along with a solo single I released the next year, “Stone’s Throw Away” / “In My Life” [written by Lennon/McCartney].
“Daddy Was a Mover” [American Duck] is one of Beverly’s favorite songs. I haven’t performed it since I virtually abandoned the electric band, but she wants me to do it. We haven’t figured out how to perform it acoustically yet, since drums are an integral component of it.
Did you guys actually have a connection to Cat Stevens?
Believe it or not, we recorded his song, “Wild World” [Dillard gently sings “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wide world, and I’ll always remember you…”]. It became his first hit single in America [No. 11 Pop] and basically launched his career.
Richie got the song and said he wanted to cut it with us. I loved it, so Richie put a hold on it. That means nobody else was going to record it. Consequently, we went in the studio and recorded it. Cat had not released it yet.
When A&M, Cat’s record label, found out that Richie thought it would be a hit record for the Dillards, they went ahead and released Cat’s version. Although they promised it would be ours first, that’s the business for you. Now you know the story. I think Richie has our version somewhere in his archives.
Do you play any songs off Roots and Branches in concert?
I haven’t done any of the songs from Roots recently. However, I am working up “Redbone Hound.” I am starting to perform some of the songs from Wheatstraw Suite [e.g. “Don’t You Cry” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face”] and Copperfields. I haven’t gotten around to Tribute to the American Duck yet.
I’m still doing the new stuff off my last two solo albums and the songs we did during our guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show.
When I get requests for songs on Roots and Branches, sometimes it’s hard to do some of the songs because it requires a different sustain on an instrument. I would be doing Roots and Branches unplugged.
Now when we toured Roots and Branches back in the early ’70s, we stayed true to the record. If there was an electric-based song, that’s how we performed it live. Billy Ray learned Richie’s guitar parts on his Telly.
Just the other day I saw a rare video on YouTube of us performing “Daddy Was a Mover” in 1978 on Austin City Limits. It’s an example of the Dillards playing electric with our Telecasters.
[Author’s Note: During an impromptu soundcheck for Dillard’s show at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival in Waycross, Georgia, on September 23, 2011, he unleashed the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” When I mentioned that I had first heard the Dillards’ cover on Wheatstraw Suite before the original Beatles version, Dillard was astounded, inquiring, “Really!?”].
Why did you never record with Richard Podolor again?
I went through that phase of recording in Hollywood during the ’60s and ’70s, and it was simply time to move on and totally do my own thing. Besides, I spent nearly two years with Richie recording Roots and Branches.
I saw Richie close to 10 years ago, and we had a good long conversation. Everybody just moves on. There’s a certain period of life where things happen. Things change, attitudes change, perspectives change. You keep moving. That’s not to say we couldn’t reunite someday and do another album.
How do you feel about Roots and Branches?
Dean Webb: I like it okay. I wasn’t crazy about it but there were certain things that I liked specifically. Rodney wrote a song called “Redbone Hound.” I think that’s my favorite song in there.
Richie was famous for recording Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, and Blues Image among many other hot rock acts in the ’70s. Somebody thought that putting us together with him would be a big deal but that was the only album we did with him nevertheless.
Did you enjoy the process of recording with Podolor?
Dean Webb: Not particularly. My problem was that Richie was one of those types that it didn’t matter what time he was there or not because he owned his own studio, American Recording. He always wanted us to come in there and record into the night.
Herb Pedersen, a fine singer and banjoist who replaced Douglas, had just gotten married, and he was not about to stay all night at a studio. Now, I wasn’t real crazy about it either going over there or staying up all night. I prefer to record in day time hours like normal people work.
So that’s when Herb basically left us over that deal. Billy Ray Latham [misspelled “Lathum” on the LP sleeve credits] was Herb’s replacement. Herb started out working on Roots and Branches — as Douglas did on Wheatstraw Suite but then he left. Sometimes you have to make those changes based on what project you’re trying to do at the time.
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