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  • July 25th, 2018

EVERYBODY BACK ON THE TRUCK

By Joel M. Vance

And then there was one.

In the late 1950s two brothers from Salem Missouri and a buddy formed a bluegrass band and enlisted a local disc jockey as their bass player, acquired an aging 1950s Cadillac, loaded it with their instruments and with virtually no money, headed to Los Angeles to make their fortune.

After scrounging up traveling money along the way by stopping off to play music in the kind of places where there was chicken wire between the band and the audience to shortstop thrown beer bottles, the Dillards landed in Los Angeles, got a gig at one of the city’s renowned folk music venues, and within two weeks had been discovered by a talent scout for the Andy Griffith television show— probably the most popular show on television, then and still an enduring favorite in reruns now.

As the Darling family they were in a half-dozen episodes over the next three years and if nothing else their appearances were notable for exposing the nation to the finest bluegrass possible. The Darling family supposedly consisted of patriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle), sister Charlene (Maggie Peterson) and the boys— the Dillards who never spoke (and it must’ve been crippling for Mitch Jayne not to be able to talk– if there was any attribute Mitch had other than his musical talents, it was storytelling, both written and spoken).

The real life brothers were Rodney and Doug Dillard, the third Dillard and third Darling brother was their buddy Dean Webb, and their elder statesman fourth Darling brother and band spokesperson and bass player was Mitch Jayne. When Dean Webb, the mandolin player, died on June 30, it left only Rodney Dillard, the original guitar player as the sole remaining member of a legendary and much loved bluegrass quartet.

Over the years, the band not only splintered, but one by one except for Rodney they have died. Mitch was the first to go in 2010, and Doug, the banjo player, followed him in 2012. Now Dean Webb, victim of a heart attack, has joined them. In his final days in the hospital, someone asked Mitch Jayne how he was doing. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never died before.”

In Mitch’s obituary Doug and Rodney Dillard’s Aunt Dollie is quoted as saying about their impetuous emigration to California, “You boys sure are going a long way to flop!” But they didn’t flop and have endured in one incarnation or another for 60 years.

I’ve had a long love affair with the Dillards and was fortunate enough to be a close friend of Mitch’s. I heard about him long before I knew him. My boss at the conservation department, Jim Keefe, told me that he had been driving through the Ozarks one day when he tuned into the Salem radio station and heard the announcer giving the snake and tick market report. That was a signature tall tale of Mitch’s where he would emulate the stock market reports often given on local radio stations of the time and substitute the latest market report for “Who Boy White Dot Crush Proof Dry Valley Wonder ticks as well as futures for black, copperhead, coachwhip, garter and rattle snakes.”

When the group dispersed after their stand on the Andy Griffith show Mitch retired to Missouri, first to Columbia, then back to the old home country, settling in Eminence, just down the road from Salem. He made occasional forays to other towns, giving talks to various groups and telling his stories and keeping alive the legend of one room schools (his first job was teaching in one), of horseback rides just to get to school, and children speaking what amounted to Elizabethan English, a heritage from the Scots Irish immigrants who settled much of the Ozarks.

And he wrote—he had always written. In 1970 his novel Old Fish Hawk was published and subsequently became a 1979 movie starring Will Sampson as a remnant Osage Indian, an alcoholic, who hunts down the bear that killed his favorite hunting dog and subsequently saves a young boy from a wild Russian boar that has terrorized the town.

Oddly, the movie was made by a Canadian director and has very little resemblance to the Ozarks or to the spirit of the novel itself which, thanks to Mitch Jayne’s Ozark roots, is filled with the local color and flavor of his old home place. The novel is light years from the methamphetamine suffused plot of the recent novel Winters Bone and you won’t leave the theater feeling as if you need a period of detoxification.

Between trips to the post office, and stopping to talk to probably half the people in Eminence, every day, Mitch wrote a column for the local newspaper, the Current Wave which, collected, would be worth a book by itself. He also wrote another novel and an account of the Dillards time on the Andy Griffith show— all entertaining all written with verve and humor. Shortly before he died he dictated the last chapter of another novel, knowing that he would not live to see it published but unwilling to die before he finished it.

Doug Dillard is considered one of the godfathers of the five string banjo, along with Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. He’s credited with being a major influence on John McEuen who became the Godfather and backbone of the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band and who in turn was a mentor to Steve Martin, all around Renaissance man— writer, actor, and now almost a full time banjo man.

In 1991 McEuen was inspired to produce a documentary on the Dillards titled A Night In the Ozarks which featured the original gang reunited in Salem for, first, a concert in town and then a gathering at a rural farmhouse where people wandered in and out, playing music, and re-creating the sight and sound of an old time front porch picking. Homer Dillard, father of Doug and Rodney, fiddled, and Rodney’s wife, Beverly Cotten, clog danced with Homer.

The DVD has become a collector’s item, still available here and there if you have deep pockets. I was lucky enough to attend the first half of the filming in town, but stupidly passed on a chance to go to the farmhouse for the finale, something I will regret forever. I remember Rodney before the concert started snarling in rage at faults he found in the sound system, but whatever they were, they were sorted out by the start and on a hot summer night in Salem, Missouri, where it all started many of the same people who were there when that legend formed were in the audience to cheer for their hometown heroes.

With what I suspect was usual , Dean Webb said little and stood unobtrusively until it came time for him to pick. He doesn’t get the press that, for example, Bill Monroe, the father of the bluegrass mandolin, has always gotten—but if you listen to him you realize that he was like Doug Dillard on the banjo one of the giants of his chosen instrument.

He and Mitch were roommates on the road and the two brothers took a second room. Dean Webb was in charge of approving where they would stay and once rejected a motel, explaining to the puzzled band that he had found bullet holes in the door between the adjoining rooms and considered that “not a good sign.”

Over the years the band morphed into something considerably different than the music that formed its musical roots. Doug Dillard left in 1968 to form the band Dillard and Clark. Rodney became the de facto leader of the Dillards and over the next decades formed and reformed the band many times with many musicians.

And the Dillards as a band are credited with being the leaders in the 1970s folk rock movement involving such legendary outfits as the Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. As an example of how tangled the web can become, Samuel (Buddy) Brayfield was a founding member of the Daredevils and our family doctor for several months before he moved his practice back to Lake of the Ozarks.

The Dillards are considered pioneers in folk rock and are credited with influencing some of the biggest names in music history–they toured with Elton John and had a major influence on the Eagles, the Byrds, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin who said Dean Webb influenced his decision to play the mandolin.

Even as the Dillards except for Mitch roamed far from their musical roots, they never got traditional bluegrass out of their system. They reunited for an Andy Griffith show special in 1988. A few days after Mitch died, Rodney and Maggie Peterson appeared on stage together to talk about Mitch and sing There Is a Time, the song that Mitch and Rodney wrote together. The Dillards toured together in the 1990s and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002 and in 2009, the band was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame with all four members in attendance.

Fittingly, in 2010 Mitch’s friends and neighbors gathered at Alley Spring State Park to honor his memory. It was there that Mitch and his wife Diana were married. It also was the last time I saw Dean Webb who was present with his band Missouri Boatride.

It could have been no other way— Webb and the band gathered on the front porch of a restored one room schoolhouse (could it have been anything else for Mitch?) filled with memorabilia about Mitch and the Dillards/Darlings and played and sang songs from the good old days including The Old Home Place, the song that he and Mitch wrote together.

The theme of one of Mitch’s books is “everybody back on the truck, a reference to the way the Darlings came to town to pester Andy Griffith. Now, many years later, virtually all the cast of that iconic television show have gotten on the truck and gone down a dusty country road to who knows where?

Now there is but one.

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