Category Archives: The Dillards

Exploring the Discography of Life

“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read.  Or rather, what finds us”

When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago.  One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?”  I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.

I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then.  I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music.  Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Read the rest of this entry

Fiddle Tunes, Old Time, and “Jamming”

When you jam, you shoot for fun and participation, not showing off

Well, the other day Nancy called me and said, “Hey, we’re going to have a jam over at the house.”  Jim Brown and his daughter are coming to play fiddle, and a couple of neighbors are coming, one plays the guitar.”  So I went.  We had a grand time.

IMG_7462 (2)

Taking turns ain’t so bad.

Jam sessions used to terrify my when I was still learning the “discography,” as they say.  The bluegrass, celtic, Irish, old-time and folk worlds are an oral tradition of literally thousands of songs.  Just the familiar American fiddle tunes common in jams, like “Blackberry Blossom,” “Bill Cheatham,” “Whisky Before Breakfast,” “Salt Creek” and so on, number in the hundreds.  And there are different ways they are played.  Anyone wanting to learn guitar, and especially folk and bluegrass music, does well to practice these tunes until the most common 30-50 of them are familiar to you.

The most powerful truth about “fiddle tunes” is that they were originally not for performing but playing together and dancing.  In other words, they were communal.  It was something people did before blood-spurting video games, cruising the next and texting, all solitary expressions that tell who we are.  Modern Airports are museums of eccentric anonymity—looking at their screens and ears plugged with those ubiquitous white Apple ear deafeners.  Lots of people carrying instruments somewhere, but not a dern one of us pulls it out of the case and gathers new friends to pick.  Shame.  It would sure help us forget how much we hate the airlines.

When you jam, you shoot for fun and participation, not showing off.  Off course, plenty of the latter happens, but it’s better if you don’t go for it.  Showing everybody else up is, well, obnoxious, same as in regular life.  It’s like beating your two year old in basketball.  And it proves what?

Anyway, the world of this music is a world of sharing, courtesy, respect and encouragement.  Not mostly about showy breaks, but all things decently, in order, and as widely involving as possible.  I’m reading Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, and in it, the author cites the “Ten Commandments of Jamming” by Laura Pharis.[i]  Here they are, in case you decide to gather a quick jam at the airport next time so it can have a smidge of humanity amid the sterility of moving masses on the flying tubes.

1. Thou shalt not forsake the beat.

2. Thou shalt always play in tune.

3. Thou shalt arrange thyselves in a circle so thou mayest hear and see the other musicians and thou shalt play in accord with the group.

4. Thou shalt commence and cease playing in unison.

5. Thou shalt stick out thine own foot or lift up thine own voice and cry, “This is it!” if thou hast been the one to begin the song, this in order to endeth the tune, which otherwise wilt go on and on forever and forevermore.

6. Thou shalt concentrate and not confound the music by mixing up the A part and the B part. If thou should sinneth in this, or make any mistake that is unclean, thou mayest atone for thy transgression by reentering the tune in the proper place and playing thereafter in time.

7. Thou shalt be mindful of the key of the banjo, and play many tunes in that key, for the banjo is but a lowly instrument which must be retuned each time there is a key change.

8. Thou shalt not speed up nor slow down when playing a tune, for such is an abomination.

9. Thou shalt not noodle by thine ownself on a tune which the other musicians know not, unless thou art asked or unless thou art teaching that tune, for it is an abomination and the other musicians will not hold thee guiltless, and shall take thee off their computer lists, yea, even unto the third and fourth generations. Thou shalt not come to impress others with thine own amazing talents, but will adhere to the song, which shall be the center around which all musicians play.

10. Thou shalt play well and have fun.

 Far as I’m concerned, ought to send it to the United Nations, Congress, and the G8.  Some good jamming would resolve many of the biggest diplomatic crises of our time.  Look at the dictators and  tyrants of history.  You wouldn’t find a banjo or mandolin within a mile of ‘em.  That’s where the problems started.  As the late Briscoe Darlin once said on Andy Griffith, “You got time to breathe, you got time for music.”  Or, a man that ain’t got time to pick a tune, well, he’s trouble waitin’ to happen.”  Stay back so the explosion doesn’t get you.

 


[i] Pp. 161-162, Hannah Allen is a contributing writer for the North Carolina Arts Council blog, NCArtsEveryday,

 

Pat Terry and the Eye of the Artist

 If we learn to look at life with the eyes of the artist, we

will see an entire universe that is “a gift of mercy.”

Workshop

Pat pondering how to help a workshop participants song

It’s odd that a musical preacher who writes songs, cut his teeth and got called to ministry during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would have met Pat Terry so late in life, but that’s the way life winds sometimes.  I had heard of the Pat Terry group back when he was starting out—Pat is just a bit older than me.  I heard his songs, but my musical journey got put on hold for a long time as marriage and children and years in graduate education and pastoral ministry took me in different directions.  I continued listening to music and playing and singing, sometimes in church and mostly by myself for my own pleasure.

Pat Terry, meanwhile, was on a journey of his own, too.  After many years, first in the very spontaneous and joyful Jesus Movement musical world, and then for a while in the increasingly industry-captivated contemporary Christian musical world, he moved on.  He had a good, long run as a commercial songwriter in Nashville, with a string of songs for many well-known artists like John Anderson, Travis Tritt, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys.  He learned the Nashville craft and all the while continuing his own inner journey of writing from the heart.

So it was that a few years ago, Greg Womble, my friend and bandmate who plays the banjo publicly, and I, who play it out of earshot but love it, went to Atlanta to Read the rest of this entry

Doug, Doc and Earl…Bluegrass Breakdown and Cry

The Darling Boys are no more

This has been one of the unkindest of years in acoustic music.  First, Earl Scruggs, the Founding Father of bluegrass banjo, passed away (read my post on Earl’s death here CLICK)  back in March.  Then a few weeks ago, Doug Dillard, a rollicking banjo player who blazed a trail with the banjo across genres in the 1970s when he left the Dillards to join Gene Clark of the Byrds to form Dillard and Clark.

Of course, you’d know old Doug for another reason, if you ever watched the Andy Griffith Show.  He was the poker-faced Darlin’ Brother in the family band that descended like an affectionate blight on Andy and Mayberry every

The Darling Family, “that one makes me cry, Paw”

now and then, always intermixing their superstition and hijinx drama with some red-hot bluegrass while Paw (Denver Pyle) came along on the jug.

In fact, the Darlin’ Family were a rising bluegrass band discovered by Andy Griffith’s producer  in a nightclub in Los Angeles.  At the core were two brothers, Rodney and Doug Dillard, on guitar and banjo, and joined by Mitch Jayne and Dean Webb on bass and mandolin.  They hailed from Missouri and had been performing on the folk revival scene when Andy found them.  They moved to LA to have greater freedom to experiment with their music and its traditions.

The first bluegrass song I played was probably “Orange Blossom Special” with my Dad and Uncle Paul Furr on the fiddle on Uncle Paul’s porch.  Uncle Paul exposed me to my first outhouse, although it was a little upscale, known as a “two-holer.”  The second song I met growing up was “Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” brought to me by my friend Paul in high school, while we were playing together.  I loved it right away and got the vinyl album.  In our current band, we learned Dillard’s version of this very old tune early on and still do it.  “Bowed My Head” was an old time tune that Bill Monroe and others did in an old time style, but Dillard and Clark did it with drums, pedal steel and Byron Berline on the fiddle.  It had an energy that would influence many others.  The New York Times says,

Known simply as Dillard and Clark, their group, with Mr. Dillard playing guitar and fiddle as well as banjo, recorded two albums for A&M before disbanding. The albums did not sell well but have come to be regarded as among the earliest stirrings of the West Coast country-rock movement and an important influence on the Eagles and other bands. (Bernie Leadon, a charter member of the Eagles, had also worked with Dillard and Clark.)

Doug Dillard’s playing has shown up in all our lives somewhere.  According to Billboard magazine’s tribute article,  “the brothers still worked together in front of the camera from time to time, being part of Harry Dean Stanton’s band in the Bette Midler film The Rose.”  The Dillards toured with many performers over the years– Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, even Elton John.  They left a huge influence on what would become “newgrass” and crossover music in groups like the Eagles and many others.

Doug could make a banjo sing.  I read that when he first got his banjo he got his Dad to drive him to Nashville to Earl Scruggs’ house

Bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs answered a knock at the door of his Nashville home in 1953 to find an eager-

Dillard and Clark, whose songs “Polly” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” were covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their hit CD a few years back, “Raising Sand”

looking banjo enthusiast on the porch asking Scruggs to put a set of his special tuner keys on the young man’s instrument. “He was so gracious,” Rodney Dillard said of the reception his older brother, banjo player Doug Dillard, received that day from the father of the bluegrass banjo. “He sold him the tuners, then sat down at his kitchen table and installed them on the spot.”  (LA Times—read the story)

The fine compilation of their hits is on a single CD called THERE IS A TIME: 1963-1970.  It contains all the great Darling Family songs from the show, but also a lot of the songs the Dillards did, from folk to country, old time and blended styles.  You can hear Doug Dillard’s melodic licks leap from the strings.

Anyway, I especially remember another song the Dillards did that is one of our mainstays, “There is a Time.”  (Listen)  It is a sad, mournful, truth-telling tune about how love is weathered down and dies in time.  Charlene sang it on the Griffith show and it was one of the most haunting tunes I ever heard.  Andy says at the end, “Well, that’s about the purtiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Doug Dillard, Banjo player, also graduated with a degree in accounting.

One thing is different about Doug from his Andy Griffith character, who was always poker-faccd.  If you ever watch a video of Doug Dillard, he’s always smiling onstage.

Some years ago, Rodney was invited to do the song with the Dillards on the next generation of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III.”  Rodney wrote a fourth verse to add to the original three that seems somehow fitting.  Originally written with Mitch Jayne, who has since passed away, he sang it in a video that I leave with you as he mentions the loss of Jayne and, perhaps, fitting to hear as we think about his brother’s passing.  The new lyric says, hopefully

   Time is like a river flowing

            with no regrets as it moves on

            Around each bend a shining morning

            and all the friends we thought were gone

Rest in peace, I say once more, to another banjo legend.  Thank you, Doug Dillard.  The Darling Boys are no more.

Tomorrow, I’ll remember Doc Watson.  Two legends deserve their own mentions.