The bluegrass world is mourning the passing of Doug Dillard, who died in Nashville on Wednesday, May 16. The 75-year-old had been suffering from complications due to a collapsed lung.
Dillard wasn't just one of bluegrass' most innovative banjo players; he was one of the genre's most pivotal and charismatic ambassadors. As a member of The Dillards (cofounded with brother Rodney), he pierced the mainstream American consciousness via The Andy Griffith Show. Between the years 1963 and '66, the group portrayed the Darlings, a family of poor Appalachians who lived in a shack just outside Mayberry (a fictional town based on Mount Airy, N.C.). Appearing on the show a handful of times, their infectious musical performances helped introduce the country to bluegrass music.
Of course, the ultimate irony was that neither The Dillards nor bluegrass were native to Appalachia. Doug and his family actually hailed from Salem, Mo., at the foot of the Ozark Plateau, a region rich in bluegrass tradition. It's an interesting area in the United States, an intersection where the Midwest bleeds into the South (and vice versa) -- something that's reflected in how The Dillards' dry, no-nonsense propulsion underpinned tight vocal work influenced by white gospel music.
Their role as the Darlings required The Dillards to relocate to the Los Angeles area. While out West, they helped sow the seeds of both the country-rock and progressive bluegrass movements through a string of brilliantly genre-expanding albums, including Back Porch Bluegrass, Pickin' & Fiddlin' and Wheatstraw Suite. The importance of these records cannot be overstated. Along with Clarence and Roland White's Kentucky Colonels, The Dillards were embraced by California's booming folk-rock scene, which included The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Grateful Dead, Hearts & Flowers, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and, several years later, The Eagles, whose soaring harmonies were profoundly influenced by them.
Shortly before the release of Wheatstraw Suite in 1968, banjoist Doug left the group and soon hooked up with ex-Byrd and gloomy genius Gene Clark. According to Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California (one of the very best tomes to chronicle the evolution of West Coast country rock), the two were peas in a pod when it came to psychedelic shenanigans and drunken hell-raising in and around L.A. They were also bona fide musical visionaries who complemented one another perfectly: Clark's brooding balladry found a much-needed metronome in Dillard's wiry picking and laser-guided voice. Dillard & Clark managed to release two amazing albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through the Morning, Through the Night, before imploding. On both, the duo found a way to reconcile very fundamental and seemingly antagonistic narratives in American culture: our need for home, roots and tradition (bluegrass) and our thirst for change, progress and upheaval (rock 'n' roll). It's a reconciliation that echoes through modern musical movements such as alt country and indie folk.
After the '60s, Dillard eased into his role as a bluegrass pioneer and legend. In addition to releasing several great solo albums, he did a ton of session work and collaborated often with fellow banjo genius John Hartford (another real-deal character). He also played with his old group The Dillards every now and then. Though his performance schedule had slowed down due to failing health in recent years, Dillard was never far from his banjo.
R.I.P., Doug Dillard.