The Dillards’ secret weapon: In step with mandolin maestro Dean Webb
“Wheatstraw Suite was a very influential album in my life,” admitted Eagles co-frontman Don Henley during promotion for his chart-topping Cass County country-leaning record. “I was a big fan of the Dillards. In fact, I drove through a snowstorm to hear them play in Fort Worth back in 1968. I just thought ‘She Sang Hymns Out of Tune’ was the most interesting song and they were an interesting band.”
Dean Webb, founding member of the progressive bluegrass and pioneering country rock four-piece band, graciously agreed to examine his nearly 60-year professional music career in a sweeping interview debuting below.
Whether you realize it or not, Webb has been featured in syndication every day since 1963 as one of the tight-lipped but melodically bubbling over Darling Family mountain dwellers on the iconic Andy Griffith Show in six fan-favorite episodes.
Also consisting of Rodney Dillard on guitar-lead vocals, big brother Doug Dillard on banjo, and the witty Mitch Jayne as bassist-emcee [the latter two are sadly both deceased], the well-rehearsed outfit initially worried that the Griffith producers’ request to enhance the hillbilly mannerisms might impact their standing among fellow bluegrass connoisseurs. That fear proved to be unfounded as the comedy series crucially gave both the Dillards and bluegrass a significant national spotlight.
The maestro mandolinist and often uncredited harmony vocal arranger — the Byrds’ epic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” wasn’t properly completed until the group had practiced repeatedly to a tape of Webb rendering tenor and baritone parts — earned his stripes growing up in Independence, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb situated in western Missouri prairie country.
The son of a gas station operator and county nurse, Webb spent his evenings listening to Bill Monroe on the radio and was particularly knocked out when he heard the famed bluegrass mandolin expert’s second, revved up version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” modeled after a 19-year-old Elvis Presley’s cover with the Blue Moon Boys included as the B-side of “That’s All Right,” Presley’s debut single on the Memphis-based Sun Records.
The Missourian decided he wanted to fit in with his bluegrass-playing cousins who were proficient on guitar, fiddle, and banjo, so he obtained a beat-up ’50s era Gibson A-50 mandolin and began diligently practicing. An uncle also happened to play Bob Wills-influenced Texas swing on the Brush Creek Follies Saturday night radio broadcast, Kansas City’s version of the Grand Ole Opry.
Webb actually received his first concert paycheck not as a mandolinist but rather as a stand-up bass sideman unleashing country music in the rowdy honky tonk bars that dotted the rural Midwestern landscape. The genial, soft-spoken, and humble musician explains the rest of his hair-raising journey to Hollywood and beyond starting now.
The Dean Webb Interview
Before the Dillards officially signed with the Elektra label in 1963, had you done any recording?
Yes. Distributed by Universal Music Group, Varèse Sarabande is a reissue label that has put out two albums of the original stuff we recorded in St. Louis — before we ever left Missouri for California.
Doug, Rodney, and I went up to this boy’s house in St. Louis who we had met named Peter B. Weston. He had a bunch of recording equipment upstairs. We cut this first basic album of stuff on banjo, guitar, and mandolin, respectively. Later I went back over and overdubbed bass fiddle on everything.
Almost a half century later in 2006 Varèse Sarabande finally released the 10-song session as Early Recordings: 1959. But that album wasn’t done in 1959; it was done in ’60 or ’61. They unearthed some old photos of Doug and Rodney together in 1959 so they sorta fudged the date [laughs].
Mitch joined us by 1962. He heard Early Recordings: 1959, the tape that we recorded at this old boy’s house. He liked the sound of it and said, “Hey, I want to join up with you guys. I’ll learn to play bass enough to play with you, and I can tell funny stories and be the MC.” We found him a bass, and Rodney helped teach him how to play it.
We did a concert at Washington University in St. Louis in 1962. The same guy came with his recording equipment and recorded A Long Time Ago — The First Time Live! .
Mitch took the tape of Early Recordings: 1959 and went to California on a little vacation trip with his wife and two daughters. His sister lived in California along with his folks, and she knew somebody that knew a personal manager named Norman Malkin in the music business. Mitch wanted to see what connections he could make for us. Long story short, Norman signed to represent us, and the Lansdowne-Winston outfit wound up handling our publishing.
We kept talking to our personal manager back and forth. We wanted to come to California. ‘No, no, wait until I get you a job.’ We decided we couldn’t wait. We were going to work our way up out there — whatever it took.
We found The Buddhi club in Oklahoma City in the fall of 1962. The guy liked us but said, “I don’t have any openings.” Fortunately, somebody cancelled out so he called to see if we wanted to do it. We did. We started to get tired of Oklahoma City after a month or two because it was kind of grim around there. Anyway, performing at The Buddhi gave us an opportunity to make enough money to get on to California.
What happened when the Dillards landed in Los Angeles?
We went to a club called the Ash Grove in Hollywood. I had read in some magazine about a bluegrass band from New York City named the Greenbriar Boys who were on Vanguard Records and had played at the Ash Grove. When we got to the Ash Grove the same band was there.
It doesn’t take bluegrass musicians very long to get acquainted. I see Ralph Rinzler, the mandolin player. I know their names from the article I’d read about them already. I went over and collared him. We started talking and got to playing a little around the lobby.
Ralph goes, “Hey, you guys sounded pretty good. Why don’t you come up onstage with us? We’ll call you up there so you can jam with us.” “Okay” [laughs]. They asked us if we’d be interested in coming back the next night and doing that too. We said, “Sure.”
There was a record producer watching us in the club who actually wound up producing us named Jim Dickson. Jim comes and talks to us, asking if we were going to do that the next night. “We replied, “Yeah, we’re going to do that.” So Jim returned and brought Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records. Out of that deal we got signed to a record contract with Elektra.
Variety is a major magazine they put out about local things that go on for musical people and show business type things. Our manager got a copy of Variety, and there was an article. He called us up and said, “There’s a blurb in this little magazine that says, ‘Elektra Records just signed a young bluegrass group from Missouri.’”
Anyway, Richard O. “Dick” Linke, Andy’s manager, read the article and called Elektra. They told him how to get a hold of our manager. Dick told him, “Have the boys come over here to Desilu so we can see what they look like and hear what they sound like when they play.” “Okay.”
We go over there and play a tune or half a tune. Andy exclaimed, “That’s it! You’re the look we want, and you’re the sound I want.” This all happened probably within a month of us being in Los Angeles. It’s one of those deals of just being at the right place at the right time.
Why did the Darling Family only appear in six episodes of The Andy Griffith Show?
I don’t think they really intended for us to do that many. On our first show, “The Darlings Are Coming” [aired March 18, 1963], I remember us trying to exit our hotel room so we wouldn’t have to pay our bill. We climbed down a rope into a back alley, but Andy was waiting for us. When he caught me in his arms, I couldn’t help but laugh.
They received so much fan mail about this particular episode that the show’s producers brought us back five more times. Andy was a big bluegrass fan. He played guitar and he played a little bit of banjo too. So we’d sit around at the set and play all the time till they hollered for us to go do some kind of a scene.
We worried about whether doing The Andy Griffith Show was going to be good for our image. The show’s producers wanted us to dress and act like hillbillies. Of course it helped us, but we didn’t know that at the time.
The Beverly Hillbillies was also using bluegrass. They had Flatt and Scruggs appear occasionally. That was a big deal in terms of introducing bluegrass to a wider audience.
Did you ever wish you had been given some dialogue to deliver on the The Andy Griffith Show?
Not really. There was some talk about trying to take the Darling Family, including Denver Pyle as our dad Briscoe and Maggie Peterson as our sister Charlene, and make a series around that idea. But it never materialized. Now we would have had to speak if we had our own show [laughs]. That’s one of those things that not many people know about.
How did the Dillards record the music for The Andy Griffith Show?
They wouldn’t let you play anything live on the show because they didn’t feel like you’d get that right kind of sound quality. All the scenes would be worked out time wise. They wanted so many minutes of music here, a song there, and so forth.
We’d go over to a recording studio called Glen Glenn Sound in Hollywood and figure out exactly how many seconds or minutes they wanted of whatever song. Then we’d play it specifically to the clock where it came out just exactly that way. It was all prerecorded.
Later they would come to the Desilu set when we were going to do the scene. They had a place for a big record player that would play a disc. We would just kind of “fake it” to the disc as it was playing along. Of course, sometimes you got it just like you had originally played it, and sometimes you couldn’t hear it well enough to do that.
But it made it look like we were playing it live, especially in those scenes where they would have us enter or leave town playing on the back of the truck. Nobody could’ve played on the back. It’s all you could do to hang on and keep from falling off anyway [laughs].
What is the story behind “The Old Home Place,” a standout cut on the Dillards’ debut long player, Back Porch Bluegrass ?
Mitch and I wrote “The Old Home Place” one day. Surprisingly, Rodney and Douglas weren’t around. I’ve gotten more mileage out of that particular song than anything else we ever did. Virtually all bluegrass groups have recorded it. It has become a standard.
I think songwriter/guitarist Tony Rice did the best version of it. It was early in his career, when he was a member of New South. By the way, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas were in that band.
Tony changed some of the words when he recorded it [featured on the J.D. Crowe & the New South album, Aug. 1975]. I never asked him why. In fact, when New South’s manager told me they had cut it, he said they were going to name the album after the song. Well, they didn’t wind up doing that. When Missouri Boatride performs it today, we stick to the original version.
Was Mitch Jayne an exceptional bass player?
Mitch played quite a bit of bass. He didn’t play totally everything we did play on because it was more complicated bass that he could do, but he played on all the live shows we played.
Just every once in a while on some studio recording they’d use another bass player because they didn’t feel that Mitch could handle it, really. We wound up doing all that stuff eventually on stage if it got to where anyone wanted to hear it at all.
Did you ever play any additional instruments besides mandolin with the Dillards?
Why did you never sing lead on a Dillards tune?
Doug, Rodney, Mitch, and I were who it was in the beginning. Rodney was sort of designated our basic lead singer. So, that’s the way we did it. I would do one once in a while in clubs and things on different TV shows that we did.
They didn’t seem to want me singing lead on the album things that we did. I get to do that now with Missouri Boatride. If I had been asked to sing lead, I certainly would have.
Respected rock photographer Henry Diltz memorably photographed the Dillards circa 1967.
Everybody called him “Tad” when he played banjo, clarinet, and harmonica in the Modern Folk Quartet [1962–1966]. “America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry owned Melody Ranch in Newhall, California, and he would let people come out there and take photos. One time the Dillards visited the ranch and worked on a pilot idea. I remember we clamored around on an old train while Tad shot the photos.
Why did Doug Dillard originally leave the band in 1968?
We had done our first three albums, which were pretty much straight bluegrass comparative to what we did later. We had started work on the Wheatstraw Suite album. Douglas wasn’t all that crazy about some of the stuff we were thinking about doing.
Anyway, we were at a rehearsal at Rodney’s house one afternoon, and Douglas got mad about the whole deal. Brothers tend to do a lot of fighting, and Rodney and Douglas were always into it about one thing or another, and the rest of us just had to wait until they cooled down.
He blurted out, “I’m just gonna quit!” Douglas went out to his car, and I followed him out to try and talk with him. I said, “If you come back in now, we’ll resolve everything. This doesn’t have to go down this way.” But he wouldn’t listen to me.
The band had a couple of jobs we had to play over the next weekend, and Douglas wouldn’t play them. So we had to find someone to fill in for him. That kind of put everybody in a certain mindset about what was gonna happen next.
So, we played the Golden Bear nightclub in Huntington Beach, California, without Douglas on Friday and Saturday. Chip Douglas, who was also in the Modern Folk Quartet, stepped in and filled Douglas’s role on banjo. Douglas even loaned Chip his banjo and buckskin shirt for the gig, after Chip asked him.
Chip also worked as our producer in the late ’60s on a few singles for White Whale Records like Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” and Herb Pedersen’s “Comin’ Home Again” [Chip may be best remembered for producing two of the Monkees’ definitive albums — Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.].
On Sunday afternoon, Rodney called me on the phone and said, “Mitch says if Douglas comes back in the group, he’ll quit.” Therefore, this sort of put it on me to deal with the situation. Come Monday morning, Douglas had come to his senses and realized he had made a mistake. I heard his car come in my driveway, since I was obviously the one designated to deal with it.
Douglas comes and hammers on my door. I was still in my bathrobe when I answered the door [laughs]. He asked me, “What are we gonna do about this?” I said, “Look, you quit, and you wouldn’t play the gigs with us over the weekend. So we had to start thinking about a replacement.”
I had a bunch of qualifications in the back of my mind as we were speaking. Douglas was always one of those guys who liked to imbibe and get high, so I told him he would have to stay straight and be more professional about his playing. A lot of musicians only think about having a good time themselves. You’re trying to entertain the people; if they see you’re having a good time, then they have a good time.
As I was rattling off this list of qualifications, Douglas interrupted me and remarked, “You’re saying I don’t qualify.” I replied, “Okay, you said it.” We didn’t really fire Douglas — he quit.
Douglas went on a brief European tour with the Byrds shortly after he left the Dillards [Author’s Note: The Gram Parsons-fronted edition of the Byrds flew out of Los Angeles on May 6, 1968 to play a handful of shows in London and Rome, respectively. Douglas also joined the Byrds when they performed two concerts at the legendary Fillmore East in New York City on May 17 and 18, 1968. His banjo solo showcase at the latter venue was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” according to a vintage Billboard magazine review].
Douglas became very good buddies with original Byrd and primary group songwriter Gene Clark. After Gene left the Byrds, he teamed with Douglas and recorded two critically acclaimed, early country rock albums — The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark  and Through the Morning, Through the Night .
It was kind of funny to me — Douglas recorded those country rock tunes with Gene, and he had originally told us he wanted the Dillards to stick with recording traditional bluegrass.
There was a neat tune on Douglas’s first solo album, the all-instrumental Banjo Album [1969, Together Records], called “Jamboree” featuring future Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar. Douglas and I had originally played it during “The Darling Fortune,” our final appearance on The Andy Griffith Show [broadcast in color on Oct. 17, 1966]. I’m not on his solo version, but I wish I had been.
By the way, I helped the Byrds arrange the vocals on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” their first major hit [No. 1 Pop, released April 12, 1965 via Columbia]. They couldn’t seem to find the proper harmony. I wasn’t expecting any publicity out of that, because they didn’t want any of their fans to know it.
Why did you decide to add orchestral overdubs to Wheatstraw Suite ?
We recorded our instrumentation for Wheatstraw Suite, but we talked with Elektra and felt that some of the songs needed sweetening — i.e. when a conductor works out an arrangement which goes over the top of what you had previously played.
We liked the orchestral arrangements, and it gave the albums — Wheatstraw Suite and the 1970 follow-up, Copperfields — a different flavor. Of course, a lot of people didn’t like it, but a lot of people did. It was an interesting thing to do at the time — you might call it a phase we went through. We experimented with different sounds throughout our career.
How do you feel about Roots and Branches, the Dillards’ highest charting album on Billboard [No. 79 Pop, debuted June 10, 1972 on Anthem Records]?
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.
That guy who was our producer, Richie Podolor, was famous for recording Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, and Ringo Starr 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 one we did with him nevertheless.
Did you enjoy the process of recording with Podolor?
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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How many records have the Dillards sold?
Our publisher for many years, Lynne Robin Green [the president of Lansdowne Music ASCAP/Winston Music Publishers ASCAP/Hoffman House Music BMI/Bloor Music Publishers BMI, collectively known as LWBH Music Publishers], might know out in California. We’ve been with so many record companies that it’s a tough question to fully answer.
How were you invited to participate in Return to Mayberry, the highly anticipated 1986 reunion movie broadcast on NBC?
From about 1982 thru 1988 Rodney, his wife Beverly Cotten, and myself worked regularly at the Silver Dollar City amphitheater in Branson with various new members of the Dillards.
Andy decided to accept a reunion television movie offer nearly 20 years after The Andy Griffith Show aired its final broadcast in 1968, so he had to contact everybody who was still alive who had been in those original shows that he thought would fit together. Andy asked folks like Jim Nabors, Denver Pyle, and Maggie Peterson Mancuso if they’d be interested. Of course we said we’d do it, too.
The way you get paid on all that kind of stuff is based on what union you belong to. Originally in the early 1960s we just belonged to the Musician’s Union. Then we had to join another thing called the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists [AFTRA]. We didn’t have any lines to speak on The Andy Griffith Show so we didn’t need to belong to the Screen Actors Guild [SAG; both performer unions merged in 2012 as SAG-AFTRA].
The producers didn’t want us to say anything because if we had, they would have had to pay us more money. We didn’t get paid too much for our six episodes, maybe $200 or $300. But it was a lot of fun to do. I haven’t felt bad about it at all because it put us on the map, so to speak.
By 1986 Douglas was already in SAG so the rest of us all got in it, too. They had to pay us just like they had to pay everybody else to do the reunion movie. I don’t even remember what we were paid for it, but it was a good size more than when we did The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s.
Were the Dillards always paid fairly by their various record labels?
You don’t know what kind of books any record company keeps. There’s always stories that go around about that. They keep a set of books that they show the government, and they have another set that’s the real one. Your publisher’s got a lawyer in case you decide to audit the label. Sometimes they score some kind of a deal and get some more money for you.
It’s a real good chance that we are in fact owed money by one or more of the record labels [Author’s Note: The Dillards’ most well-known record label association was with Elektra (1963–1970). They also experienced generally brief stints with World Pacific, Capitol, White Whale, Anthem, Poppy, United Artists, LaserLight, Flying Fish, and Vanguard. Several of these labels went belly-up or were purchased by larger companies so determining accurate sales figures and royalty rates becomes a murky proposition].
Did the Return to Mayberry television movie renew interest in the original Dillards?
Yes. Bear in mind that Rodney and I worked together a lot of times all through the 1980s. Douglas had his own band off and on for years. Mitch had actually retired from the Dillards around 1974. His hearing was getting worse. Of course he tried to find different hearing aids that worked better than the one he had last, but that’s a constant thing. All the people I know that have problems with that never can find one that they think is really a good one. They’re always searching for a better one.
All four original members of the Dillards plus utility musician Steve Cooley [e.g. banjo, guitar, upright bass] went to England, Ireland, and Japan in 1989 [a total of 132 shows were played in various countries according to the Burrito Brother website].
We played five cities in Japan. Are you aware of our second album, Live!!!!Almost!!!? The Japanese audience had listened to that 1964 album so much that they had kind of learned what we were saying phonetically.
Mitch did his humor just like he always did. As long as he didn’t stray too far from those original stories, like the privy/Joan Baez introduction for “Old Blue”, the crowd could follow him fairly well [laughs].
One of my favorite tunes covered by Missouri Boatride is “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.”
It’s a neat John Hartford song that you hardly ever hear anymore. Justin Sifford, Missouri Boatride’s lead singer, found it [from Hartford’s 1971 Aereo-Plain album released by Warner Bros.].
The Dillards did quite a few road shows with John. He would do all these strange, different songs that he composed. I don’t know how he came up with the stuff, but he did. He was a pretty sharp guy.
In the late ’70s, Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records asked Rodney and Doug to do a project with John [The Dillards and Hartford were both on Flying Fish at the time]. Two albums came to fruition, Glitter-Grass from the Nashwood Hollyville Strings  and Permanent Wave , released under the moniker, Dillard-Hartford-Dillard. Sure, I would have loved to have contributed to the project, but nobody asked me to [laughs].
[Author’s Note: Dean’s health plummeted to the point that he was unable to play mandolin or walk beyond short distances. Heart failure prompted his passing at age 81 on June 30, 2018. Sadly, two months later faithful companion Sandy Webb unexpectedly succumbed to breast cancer at age 65, perhaps exacerbated by the lack of sleep and stress associated with her round-the-clock caregiving for Dean].
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