Back in September, bluegrass legends The Dillards released Old Road New Again, a new album that founding member and former Andy Griffith Show star Rodney Dillard considers a "bookend" to the group's groundbreaking 1968 album Wheatstraw Suite.
Wheatstraw Suite left a mark on the rock 'n' roll zoo of the time (The Monkees, Byrds and Buffalo Springfield) plus several country and folk-leaning stars of the future, including (and hardly limited to) Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles. It even won over Elton John, with The Dillards landing the coveted opening slot on one of Sir Elton's first North American tours.
"On the fourth album, I wanted to do something different because that's just me," Rodney says. "I want to contribute to the music and not just follow the elephant in front of us in the parade. So Wheatstaw Suite was a departure. It had a 20-piece orchestra, drums, electric bass and all kinds of things that I merged with what I grew up with. The Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields (1970) came out, which vocally got a lot of people's attention, with Don Henley being one of them."
Rodney and an impressive cast of famous friends did what The Dillards do best on Old Road New Again-- They chose not to follow that elephant, but they didn't completely ignore the music that got them this far.
The title track, for instance, borrows from bluegrass' multi-part harmonies, performed by the all-star country-rock vocal trio of Rodney, former Dillards member Herb Pedersen and Henley. Obligatory "song that suits the times" "Tearing Our Liberty Down" teams Rodney with Ricky Skaggs, while a cover of "Save the Last Dance For Me" features Sharon and Cheryl White. And they're not the only bluegrass greats (Sam Bush appears on "The Whole World Round") or Eagles members (Bernie Leadon brought even more star power to the title track) enlisted by Rodney to further The Dillards' musical journey.
Needless to say, bluegrass music means a lot of Rodney. His dad Homer Dillard was an old-time fiddler, and the elder Dillard taught buck dancing to Elvis Presley's uncle. Rodney and his late brother Doug, a fellow original Dillards member, grew up on the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, and in retrospect, they never got above their raisin'.
Yet in the '60s, Rodney and his bandmates' musical imaginations sometimes irked hardcore bluegrass fans and folk revivalists.
"When I came out with the first album called Back Porch Bluegrass, I was crucified by the New York press folk generation because it had echo on the album," Rodney remembers. "They said, 'Since when are there echoes on the back porch?' I told them later that if you live where I live, you hear your voice coming back at you. But it was things like that. Some times a lot of critics will criticize I guess maybe to justify their own purpose. I always say they take a watch apart, but they can't put it back together."
Little did the critics know, 1963's Front Porch Bluegrass ends with a track that'd become an unlikely pop hit. The song in question, a cover of "Dueling Banjos," shaped public perception of bluegrass 10 years later when Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell's version appeared in the film Deliverance. To this day, it's the go-to stereotype for the type of music that's played on echoey, rural front porches.
The Dillards' Elektra Records output sounds normal now after decades of folk, country and roots-inspired rock and Americana acts. If a friend already likes a band with a banjo player, then one of The Darlings from Mayberry plus a new lineup featuring Beverly Cotten-Dillard, Gary Smith, Tony Wray and George Giddens should be an easy sell. That's because music by risk-takers holds up over time.
"People who innovate, like all the people on the record, took chances," Rodney says. "Ricky (Skaggs) when he went to the drums and steel and electric and left bluegrass, that took courage, passion and confidence. And it changed the course of music. That's what Henley did, that's what the Byrds did and that's what the Dillards did. You have to have that kind of attitude. My mother used to say, 'People are like turtles. If you don't stick your neck out, you don't get anywhere.' I think that's as good a quote as Nietzsche could ever say."
Old Roads New Again was produced by Grammy winner Bil Vorndick and issued by Pinecastle Records. Longtime Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen wrote the liner notes.
Old Roads New Again Track List
''Earthman'' -- featuring Herb Pedersen
''Save the Last Dance for Me'' -- featuring Sharon and Cheryl White
''Common Man'' -- featuring Herb Pedersen
''Always Gonna Be You'' -- featuring Don Henley
''Funky Ole Hen''
''The Whole World Round'' -- featuring Herb Pedersen and Sam Bush
''Tearing Our Liberty Down'' -- featuring Ricky Skaggs
''My Last Sunset'' -- featuring Don Henley and Herb Pedersen
''Old Road New Again'' -- featuring Don Henley, Herb Pedersen and Bernie Leadon
''Take Me Along for the Ride'' -- featuring Herb Pedersen