When digging through record bins, trust the surname Dillard. Whether it's The Dillards' great bluegrass albums or it's Doug Dillard's country-rock duo with Gene Clark from The Byrds, you won't be purchasing a dud.
Yet as great as those albums may be, the Dillard name's most associated with The Andy Griffith Show. That's because the original Dillards lineup of banjo picker Doug, his guitar playing brother Rodney, mandolinist Dean Webb and double bassist Mitch Jayne appeared in six episodes of the classic TV series as members of the Darlings.
The four fictitious hillbillies appeared alongside their father Briscoe, played by future Dukes of Hazzard star Denver Pyle, and their sister Charlene, portrayed by another real-life family band member, Maggie Peterson.
Nearly 54 years after his last appearance on one of TV's most beloved comedies, the only surviving Dillard to double as a Darling, Rodney Dillard, jumps at the chance to talk about his on-screen and behind-the-scenes experiences with Griffith. After all, it's still a major claim to fame for an artist who'd go on to inspire The Eagles and other Laurel Canyon acts before taking his rightful spot in the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
"At the time, being the kids that we were, being on The Andy Griffith Show was just something else we were doing because we were doing a lot of concerts after we signed with Elektra," Rodney says. "When I look back in retrospect, it's one of the nicest things that ever happened. We were very blessed to have that happen."
The Dillards and bluegrass music as a whole got quite the boost when the Darling boys performed such songs as "There is a Time," "Dooley" and "Ebo Walker" on a highly rated TV show that drew a much broader audience than your usual old-time shindig.
Well beyond the first run of the Darlings' episodes plus the Return to Mayberry TV movie, the Salem, Missouri-born Dillard brothers and their bandmates' appearances on the show remained appointment viewing in syndication. Once cable TV entered the mix, Sheriff Andy Taylor became as synonymous with the Turner networks as Dale Murphy and Ric Flair, ensuring that future generations would discover the Darlings.
"It's never been off the air, and obviously there's different philosophical reasons for that," Rodney adds. "People still watch it. Even the younger folks. You don't expect them to know anything about The Andy Griffith Show because it's ancient history, but because of its popularity and its values, people have gotten their kids into it."
To ultimately become part of a cultural phenomenon, Rodney and Doug had to audition for what turned out to be a guest-starring role for the ages.
"I'm a 20-year-old kid out of the Ozarks, walking into Hollywood, California and Desilu Studios where we auditioned," Rodney recalls. "I couldn't wait, because all of the main people were there. Here we are going in for the audition, and I'm seeing all of the stars' names on all the different studios. It was impressive for me, and a little nerve-racking.
"Andy called us over to audition because he had a script called 'The Darlings are Coming'," he adds. "We walk into that studio, and there was Bob Sweeney the director. They were filming an episode at that time. They stopped the filming, and Andy and he pulled up two folding chairs, sat in front of us and said 'Show us what you've got.' About halfway through it, Andy slapped his knee and said, 'That's it!' I turned to my brothers and said, 'They're kicking us out.' We got up and Andy said, 'Where are you going? You've got the job.'"
That's not to paint Rodney as nothing more than a wide-eyed hayseed. He took pride in the mountain folks he represented and the music he played for a massive television audience, and even at age 20, he always stood up for his principles.
"The first episode, I thought the jug was too loud in the music," Rodney says. "I said it to Andy. The next episode, it never was there again like that."
Not every show's namesake was quite as respectful once the Dillards started appearing elsewhere on the dial as musical guests.
"What I didn't like about Hollywood is they always made hillbillies look stupid, chasing their sister around the yard with a jug," Rodney says. "I resented that. That was Hollywood's perspective. Every time we did a TV show, if they'd paint freckles on the dancers, put them in Daisy Duke costumes and put hay bails out, we'd say, 'nah uh. We're not doing it.' There's dignity in rural folks and value that wasn't being represented."
The Dillards remain active, appearing at Mayberry-themed events and continuing to add a new twist to traditional bluegrass with the 2020 album Old Road New Again, a bookend to 1968's The Wheatstraw Suite featuring guest appearances by Don Henley and Ricky Skaggs.