Doug Dillard: Musician in the vanguard of the rise of country rock

 

As a member of the Dillards, the banjo-player Doug Dillard played an important role in the evolution of bluegrass music, modernising its sound and bringing it into the living rooms of millions of Americans through a series of popular TV appearances. Later he formed a partnership with the former Byrd, Gene Clark, that would help usher in the country rock movement, before becoming an in-demand session musician for acts such as Harry Nilsson, the Monkees and the Beach Boys.

Alongside his guitarist brother Rod, mandolinist Dean Webb and former teacher turned radio-announcer and bass-player Mitch Jayne, Dillard formed the Dillards in 1962, an outfit that brought electric amplification and eclecticism to bluegrass at a time when its fan-base tended to favour a more "authentic" approach. Having secured a recording contract with Elektra, they were cast as members of a musical hillbilly family named the Darlin's in the hit comedy The Andy Griffith Show and, although the show pandered to rural stereotypes of slow-witted hicks it served to expose large swathes of America to the music of its rural heartland.

Born into a musical family in Salem, Missouri, in 1937, Doug Dillard had learned the guitar by the age of fiveand regularly joined his friend, Bill Glenn, in playing for change on street corners in the town. At 15 he acquired his first banjo and became a fixture on local radio, eventually forming a group, the Ozark Mountain Boys, alongside Glenn, his own younger brother Rodney, and a couple of friends. Drawn to the innovative three-finger style popularised by Earl Scruggs, legend has it that while still in his teens he persuaded his parents to drive the 500 miles to Scruggs' home in Madison, Tennessee, where he rang the doorbell and requested that the great picker re-tune his instrument for him.

He and Rod eventually found work on St Louis radio, supporting acts such as the Hawthorn Brothers and the Dixie Ramblers, and in 1958 they entered a recording studio for the first time and cut a number of singles for the K-Ark label, among them "Banjo in the Hollow", which would later prove something of a signature tune, and "Doug's Breakdown". On being joined by Webb and Jayne in 1962, they headed west to California and landed a contract with Elektra that would see them cut three fine albums: Back Porch Bluegrass (1963), Live...Almost! (1964) and Pickin' & Fiddlin' (1965), on which they were joined by the fiddler Byron Berline.

Following creative differences with his brother, Doug Dillard parted ways with the group in 1967. Having contributed to the soundtrack of Bonnie and Clyde, he recorded The Banjo Album with his old friend John Hartford, Gene Clark and Bernie Leadon, and toured with the Byrds. He and Clark hit it off and, as Dillard and Clark, recorded a pair of albums for A&M, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (1968) and Through the Morning, Through the Night (1969), which helped pave the way for the emergence of country rock. The latter featured contributions from a number of musicians who went on to play a leading role in that genre, among them Chris Hillman and the steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow.

In 1970 Clark left and the group briefly became Dillard and the Expedition, before Dillard himself moved on. He contributed to the soundtrack of the film Vanishing Point, and between album projects undertook session work. He reunited with his brother and John Hartford in 1977 for the album Glitter-Grass from the Nashwood Hollyville Strings and again, three years later, for Permanent Wave; the original Dillards, too, reunited periodically. As leader of the Doug Dillard Band he went on to record a series of discs for Flying Fish, including Jackrabbit! (1980), What's That? (1986) and the Grammy-nominated Heartbreak Hotel (1993).

Doug Dillard remained a popularperformer until his death and wasregularly cited as a major influenceby other pickers, among them thecomedian Steve Martin, who has recently gained acclaim for his bluegrass projects The Crow (2009) and Rare Bird Alert (2011).

In 2009 the Dillards were justly inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

Paul Wadey

Douglas Flint Dillard, banjo player, singer and songwriter: born Salem, Missouri 6 March 1937; married; died Nashville, Tennessee 16 May 2012.

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