The Dillards: From Mayberry’s Darlings to Progressive Bluegrass Pioneers

In 1963, rising bluegrass band The Dillards made their first appearance on the No. 5 television show in America, The Andy Griffith Show. It was the best exposure a band could ask for and the roles weren’t exactly a stretch. Brothers Doug and Rodney Dillard played members of a family band performing hillbilly music. They were called The Darlings, but the pickin’ and harmonies were all the Dillards. And America loved them.

The Darlings made just six appearances on The Andy Griffith Show during the program’s eight-year run, but the family made a lasting impression on viewers. Along with Floyd the barber and lovable, rock-throwing backwoods scamp Ernest T. Bass, The Darlings were fan favorites. Joined by their jug playing patriarch Briscoe Darling and angel-voiced sister, Charlene, the Darling boys brought mountain music into homes where it wouldn’t otherwise be heard.

Bluegrass music was already making its mark on television viewers by way of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which could be heard blasting from television sets across the country as the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. But the Darlings were the only bluegrass band making regular appearances on screen in the early 1960s. The family was part of Mayberry’s story, and they made mountain music part of the story too.

Mayberry Music

Family jam sessions were a landmark of The Andy Griffith Show. Andy Griffith had already showed off his singing chops years earlier as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a charismatic performer bent on political power in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. Griffith continued to perform onscreen as Sheriff Andy Taylor, performing several traditional American folk songs and hymnals during the show’s run.

The Darlings were the heart of the music of Mayberry. Hailing from the Appalachian Mountains, the fictional family band brought bluegrass to suburbia. A typical scene plays out in the clip below when Briscoe Darling asks “Ya bring your stringin’ instrument, sheriff?” and Andy and the boys launch into the rowdy “Dooley.” The song, about a moonshiner with a very devoted following, is said to be written about a man the Dillard brothers knew growing up in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri.

 

The Darlings showed their softer side with the gorgeous “There Is A Time,” letting Charlene take the reigns on vocals.

 

 

Over various appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, the Dillards performed original songs such as “Ebo Walker” and traditional American folk songs such as “Boil Them Cabbage Down” and “Shady Grove,” introducing the songs to a whole new audience.

Before They Were Darlings

Doug and Rodney Dillard were born in Salem, Missouri in the Ozarks, a hotbed of bluegrass music and the setting for the 1950s country music variety show Ozark Jubilee. The brothers grew up listening to fiddler, folk singer-songwriter and “newgrass” pioneer John Hartford, who played fiddle with their father.

Doug played the banjo, while Rodney played guitar. Joined by Dean Webb on mandolin and Mitch Jayne on upright bass, The Dillards released a string of albums in the 1960s, including Back Porch Bluegrass and Wheatstraw Suite, which marked their move from traditional bluegrass to a more contemporary sound. The transition helped pave the way for younger musicians and their peers, who would soon experiment with blending country, rock and folk music to create a new sound and genre.

The Dillards in their early years.

Roots and Branches

The Dillards are recognized as one of the first bluegrass bands to electrify their instruments in the mid-1960s. They helped give birth to the breezy California rock of The Eagles and the country rock of The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Chris Hillman of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers has been vocal about the profound impact The Dillards had on the anti-Nashville country-rock movement.

“When they hit town, they completely blew everybody away,” Hillman told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.

The Dillards were also widely respected studio musicians. Doug Dillard played banjo on Glen Campbell’s recording of his old friend John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind,” which earned four Grammy Awards in 1968. They even toured with Elton John in the mid-1970s in support of their Elektra album Copperfields.

Though Doug Dillard left the band in the early 1970s, the folk rock group continued to make strides with 1972’s Roots and Branches. The album spawned the only Dillards’ single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, “One A.M.”

The original Dillard brothers toured together again in later years until Doug Dillard passed away in 2012. Rodney Dillard continues to perform as part of The Dillards, sometimes with Maggie Peterson (Charlene Darling herself). Even though the beloved sheriff and deputy have retired and the town barber has closed his doors for good,  the music of Mayberry will live on forever.

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