By Caroline Wright
"Douglas Flint Dillard… my mentor, the person who showed me that music was exciting and fun to play on stage for people… the one who was 'impickable' with the execution of his art... Douglas Flint Dillard--whose grin would hit the back of the wall from any stage he was on--has passed away." –John McEuen, from a statement on Nashville.com, May 19, 2012
With a smile that could warm up a room on a winter night--and a powerful banjo-picking style that could burn the rest of the house down--Doug Dillard, who passed away last month, was an entertainer whose music charmed audiences in pastures and palaces all over the world.
Born on March 6, 1937 in East St. Louis, Ill., Douglas Flint Dillard was the second of three brothers born to Homer and Lorene Dillard. In Salem, Mo., where Doug was raised, Homer played fiddle, Lorene was a guitarist and Doug’s eldest sibling, Earl, played keyboards. Doug started playing guitar when he was just five, and at 15, he received his first banjo as a Christmas gift from his parents.
RODNEY DILLARD, singer/guitarist, original member of The Dillards, currently with The Dillard Band; Doug’s younger brother: Doug used to play with Dad and me when he first started discovering fingerpicks—we’d pick squaredances, and he’d play with his fingers ‘cause he didn’t know about fingerpicks. And his fingers would bleed! He’d play all night long and jam till his fingers would get blistered up.
GINGER BOATWRIGHT, singer/guitarist, former member of The Doug Dillard Band: Douglas was driving his dad's car and listening o the Grand Old Opry [on the radio] when Earl Scruggs started picking. Douglas got so excited he ran off into a ditch and had to be towed out. Many years later we heard Earl on a talk show, and Douglas called in and told him the story about running off the road the first time he heard Earl pick. Earl said “Sorry about your trouble!”
After he got the banjo and started playing, he decided he needed Scruggs tuners. His parents drove to Earl Scruggs’ house in Nashville and knocked on the door. Earl graciously invited them in and sold them the tuners and installed them on his table. He asked Douglas where his fingerpicks were, and Douglas asked what fingerpicks were. He had learned to play listening to records, and got his volume by pulling harder on the strings than most banjo players did. Earl gave him some picks, and that REEEEE-ALLLY made him loud!
RODNEY DILLARD: When he discovered finger picks, he came in one weekend and said, “Listen to this!” And it was like a symphony orchestra. Later on in life, I would bring big orchestras into our music, and it never had the same thrill as hearing those fingerpicks on my brother’s fingers [for the first time].
After younger brother Rodney learned to play guitar, the two played in several local groups with other local musicians. In 1958, the brothers joined a St. Louis band called Joel Noel and The Dixie Ramblers (whose members also included a young John Hartford). Shortly after joining The Dixie Ramblers, Doug and Rodney began recording for Mario Records (K-Ark Records).
RODNEY DILLARD: We made a lot of tapes that I’m going to release one of these days, but the first record we ever made together was a song called “Banjo in the Hollow” on a little local label out of Missouri [K-Ark Records 615, by Joel Noel & The Dixie Ramblers: “Banjo In The Hollow”/”You're On My Mind”]. He was working for the city, and I was still in high school. He got in about twelve or one in the morning, and he was so excited! He put the record on and we listened to it over and over, all night long, until dawn. It was amazing, to hear something with that fidelity and quality! It was a 45. We played it over and over and over again. We wore it out.
And you know what? Of all the records we ever made together, that was the most exciting moment in our musical career. It’s always the first one.
Tucson, AZ - March 2009 (Photo by Randy Campbell)
Doug and Rodney also performed on a St. Louis radio station as The Dillard Brothers in 1958, recording for a local label. They met Dean Webb, a mandolin player from Independence, MO, through Dale Sledd, later a member of the Osborne Brothers, who was then a performer on the Ozark Opry. They asked Dean to play mandolin and bass on another record that was eventually heard by Mitch Jayne, a schoolteacher who hosted a radio show called “Hickory Holler Time" on KSMO in Salem, and whom Doug knew from his earliest years as a musician. Mitch, fired up by a conversation with a Hollywood talent manager he met in 1961, learned to play bass and joined the band as emcee and storyteller.
In 1962, The Dillards played their first debut show at Washington University in St. Louis, where Doug had earned an accounting degree. Their high-energy performance was recorded and preserved, finally remastered by Rodney and released in 1999 on The Dillards: A Long Time Ago/The First Time Live! Inspired by their successful show, they left for Los Angeles with $300 in their pockets—with a detour for some gigs in Oklahoma.
BYRON BERLINE, former member of Dillard & Clark and the Dillard Expedition; memoirist; author of Diary of a Fiddler (with Jane Frost); now in publication: I just heard the news about Doug Dillard passing away. It saddens my heart as I have wonderful memories of the times I spent with Doug. I will never forget the first time I met the Dillards: November 22, 1963 at the University of Oklahoma. Same day President Kennedy was killed. The Dillards changed my life from that day, especially Doug. I remember him asking me if I could play old-time fiddle tunes and that was about all I could play back then. I can still remember the first tune I played with them as we jammed after their performance, and that was “Hamilton County Breakdown.” I had never played with a band like that before and I felt like I was floating up near the ceiling somewhere, it was incredible.
From that [first] meeting the Dillards asked me to record a fiddle album with them. What a break for me, and we did record the following summer in Los Angeles. Doug could back up a fiddle better than any banjo player because he really understood the fiddle as his dad played--and also Doug played some fiddle. There are so many stories I could tell about Doug, and I do in my upcoming book. Rest in peace, Doug Dillard; you were one of my favorites.
“I’d like to say hi to my mom and dad up in Salem, Mo., and all the folks up there.” –Doug Dillard on Nashville Now
The very first night that Doug, Rodney, Mitch and Dean arrived in Los Angeles, they went to the famed Ash Grove, a club that often featured big folk, country and bluegrass acts, to see the Greenbriar Boys, a New York bluegrass band. When the show was over, they took their instruments onstage to jam—and an A&R man from Elektra Records happened to be in the crowd. Within a day, they had a record deal. The Dillards’ first Elektra recording was called Back Porch Bluegrass, reportedly because many of the songs on it were composed on the back porch of Mitch's home back in Salem.
Shortly, Elektra placed an ad in Variety about the exciting new band it had signed. A rep from DesiLu Studios saw the ad, and invited the band to audition for the role of The Darlings, also known as “the Darlin Boys,” a musically-inclined backwoods mountain family, on The Andy Griffith Show. They were signed immediately as semi-regular cast members. Although The Dillards appeared on only six episodes, they may still be seen playing bluegrass on television, thanks to re-runs of the program.
“They had this script written about this family of hillbillies, so they figured they might as well get the hillbillies to play music!” –Doug Dillard, as told to Ralph Emery on Nashville Now.
Left: Doug & Bobby Osborne, Ryman Auditorium, 2009 IBMA Hall of Fame Inductees (Photo by Patricia Presley)
Right: Albert Lee, Doug, & Rodney Dillard, Santa Monica, Calif., February 2009 (Photo by Randy Campbell)
GINGER BOATWRIGHT: Douglas was very proud of his tenure with the Dillards, and in particular, the time spent as The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show. But he was most known for his blistering fast banjo style, and his many banjo songs that have become classics (e.g. “Doug's Tune,” “Hickory Hollow”). He played on numerous film sound tracks, and was featured in Popeye with Robin Williams. If you blinked you might miss it, but it was a full screen of Douglas grinning and picking the banjo.
VIC JORDAN, banjo player, former Blue Grass Boy: He was an excellent banjo player, first and foremost. He and The Dillards were early pioneers of this music, especially taking it to the West Coast the way they did, and Hollywood and The Andy Griffith Show, all that stuff. A lot of people learned from them, I think, and gained experience, in a way, just by knowing their experiences—the jokes and funny stories Mitch Jayne would tell, the kinds of songs they sang.
ALAN TOMPKINS, banjo player; president of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation: I always enjoyed seeing "The Darlings" on The Andy Griffith Show, of course. But shortly after I began learning to play banjo, I heard a guy playing what I thought was one of the prettiest banjo tunes I'd ever heard. He said it was "Doug's Tune" by Doug Dillard. I learned a lot by working on that song and still enjoy hearing it played today. I appreciate Doug's effort to write what I consider to be a timelessly memorable banjo tune.
TIM CARTER, banjo player, member of the Carter Brothers: Playing outside the box in bluegrass has always been what the Carter Brothers is all about. Early in our career, the Dillards were one of our biggest influences. We wore out many Dillard records. Knowing what these guys had gone through, and how much they believed in what they were doing and holding strong to it, was an inspiration. It seemed like if the Dillards did it, then it must be okay.
After being “discovered” by America via Mayberry and Andy Griffith, The Dillards made appearances on television specials (with Judy Garland and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among others) and performed at high-profile events like the Newport Folk Festival, Monterey Folk Festival, and New York Folk Festival. After joining the Byrds on a two-week tour of Europe, Doug left The Dillards to follow his own musical vision.
Doug’s distinctive style would keep him busy with session work for a variety of artists from many genres. Over his long career, he added his magic to albums with Hoyt Axton, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Vassar Clements, Harry Nilsson, Linda Ronstadt, Kay Starr, John Hartford, Glen Campbell, The Monkees, Aztec Two Step, Gene Clark, The Byrds, Michael Martin Murphey, John Anderson, Larry Perkins, The Beach Boys and many others.
JONATHAN YUDKIN, fiddler, former member of The Doug Dillard Band: While on tour with the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, Doug once gave Mick Jagger a needed pair of dry socks. I don’t know if he ever got them back.
PETER ROWAN, singer/songwriter: When we would come through L.A., he would take us around town the whole night and we’d play music. He had incredible stamina. I wrote “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” about experiences with Doug, though the character was another person. It was Doug that took me around town so that I could see and pick up the information to help me write that; it wasn’t exactly about him. But anytime you hung out in L.A., you had to be the L.A. cowboy!
RODNEY DILLARD: [His banjo style] represented his personality. Douglas was much more complex than his smile led people to believe. He was much more complex than that.
He lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. And very few people have that luxury. Douglas did. He lived life to its fullest; he lived it abundantly. Sometimes it was good; sometimes it wasn’t. That’s life. That’s the little lessons we go through.
PETER ROWAN: When I moved back to Nashville in the ‘80s, Doug was around and he was always agreeable to play. And that made it really fun. He always had his own direction, and he was one of the greatest banjo players, and just a super-nice guy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t nice to himself, but that’s not for us to judge, is it?
When the tour was over, Doug and his new friend Gene Clark from the Byrds launched a series of musical enterprises. The pair toured and recorded as The Dillard & Clark Expedition and Dillard & Clark (with fiddler Byron Berline) and set the stage for a new kind of back-country rock music. Doug recorded his critically acclaimed Banjo Album in 1969, and went on to record other solo projects in the 1970s, finishing the decade with a couple of whimsical Flying Fish recordings with his brother Rodney and his old friend John Hartford, and a couple of classic banjo projects as well: Jackrabbit and Heaven.
Doug & Alan Munde
ALAN MUNDE, banjo player: I moved to Los Angeles in early 1972 to play with Byron Berline, Kenny Wertz, and Roger Bush in the newly formed Country Gazette. I met Doug Dillard not long after hat and we developed a friendship over time as we picked at various parties and a gig or two. Certainly Doug was a huge influence on me before I met him, with his wonderfully quick-fingered, creative banjo playing and his contribution to the wondrous sound of The Dillards.
One morning I received a call from Paul Rothschild, who produced Janis Joplin and many others. He also produced the seminal bluegrass album Beatle Country with the Charles River Valley Boys (Joe Val, Buddy Spicher, and Eric Thompson). He was in the studio that morning with Valdy, the Canadian singer, and had contracted with a banjo player, but the session was on and the player had not shown up and could not be located (hard to remember a time before cell phones and the Internet). So he asked if I could do the session. I was available and rushed down to the Hollywood studio.
When I arrived, I was told by Paul they had located the banjo player and he was on his way and I would not be needed but would be paid nonetheless. I asked who the player was. He said it was Doug Dillard. I was thrilled, and asked if I could hang around until Doug came, say hello to him, and then leave them to their music making.
We waited, and no Doug. Paul suggested that since I was there, the artist and session musicians could run the first song, I could play the banjo to get levels, and Doug could just jump in and do the take of the song. The producer thought it sounded pretty good so we might as well try for a take. It went well, Paul suggested he would keep that cut, and we went to the next song.
I recorded all four songs scheduled that day with Valdy. We were packed up and leaving when Doug finally showed up. Paul was all smiles. "I am so glad to see you found the note I left on your car!" he said.
Doug, dismayed but excited, said, “You know where my car is???”
Doug lived a very large life, but sometimes he couldn't remember where he left his car. His music and permanent smile will be missed. Bless his heart.
Doug decided to move to Nashville in 1982, where he promptly formed an eponymous band with vocalist Ginger Boatwright, and formed a friendship with former Blue Grass Boy Vic Jordan, who was his neighbor. The Doug Dillard Band, which would also feature guitarist David Grier, fiddler Jonathan Yudkin and vocalist Kathy Chiavola. The band’s 1988 release, Heartbreak Hotel, was produced by Rodney Dillard and nominated for a Folk-Bluegrass Grammy.
VIC JORDAN: I saw him sometimes on the street by his van, carrying his banjo case. He always wore kind of a floppy hat, and I never saw his face much. I just saw a guy walking in and out with a banjo case. I thought, “That’s a banjo picker! I need to go introduce myself!’ I went and introduced myself and he said, “Well, hey, how you doin’? I’m Doug Dillard!” That’s how we met.
Doug was a good friend. We used to get together once and a while, to have coffee, watch a little TV, go somewhere and eat… We both liked buffets. We talked about music, and sometimes Doug would talk a little about the early days of The Dillards. Most of the time, it was just friendly guy talk. We’d get something to eat and we’d bring it home to his apartment, or mine.
He was just a likeable guy, fun to be around. He would share thoughts with you in a heartbeat, and laugh at the drop of a hat, and his smile was unmistakable. He had that little sparkle kinda devilish look in his eyes all the time, like he was gonna pull a chair out from under you!
GINGER BOATWRIGHT: I had the pleasure of becoming Doug's music partner in 1981. I had formed a group in 1969--Red, White & Blue(grass)--and had disbanded in January 1980. Then, I had a 'ladies' group called the Bushwhackers, but disbanded that when Douglas asked me to play music with him.
We toured all over the United States and Canada, and had an absolute ball! Douglas loved to drive, and would often go 24 hours without changing drivers... until one night he ran off the road into a gully. He called me aside and asked me if I'd drive. From then on, he and I had split shifts at the wheel, but he wouldn't let anyone else drive.
KATHY CHIAVOLA, singer, former member of The Doug Dillard Band: It was somewhat unique to have two women in a bluegrass band in the early '80s. This did not happen by design, rather he loved the sound of our voices in harmony and we had a great rapport.
JONATHAN YUDKIN: My favorite memory of Doug would have to be the hundreds of hours I spent sitting beside him in the van, driving through the night and talking about life, the universe and everything (Douglas Adams). This is when he would tell me the stories (all true), which were not meant for the rest of the world to hear. Oh joy.
GINGER BOATWRIGHT: Once we went to church and afterwards took Bill Monroe to Shoney's because Bill liked their peach pie. Douglas produced a mini-tape recorder and got Bill to sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as Elvis did. It was great!!! “A-well, a-wella, Blue Moona of-a Kentucky just keep on-a shinin’...” That should be worth a mint!!!
The Dillards were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro, KY in 2009, by John McEuen. Their first three albums include a wealth of original songs that have become much-beloved bluegrass standards: “The Old Home Place,” “Dooley,” “Doug’s Tune,” “Banjo in the Holler” and “There is a Time.” Their music, comedy, and accessibility endeared them to new bluegrass audiences everywhere—in settings that were sophisticated and urban, rural and absolutely humble, and everything in between. Sadly, Doug’s fellow Dillard Mitch Jayne, 82, died Monday, Aug. 2, 2010, in Columbia. Mo. George Lindsey, who played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show, passed away on May 6, just days before Doug himself. He was 83.
DIANA JAYNE, widow of original Dillards member, the late Mitch Jayne: When I first met Douglas, in the 1990s, it was like meeting a long-time friend that I hadn’t seen in a while. My fondest memories are being in some motel room listening to he and Mitch recalling the earlier times of The Dillards. One remembering some detail the other had forgotten, and then laughter… followed by more stories. Like the music they played, they were weaving doilies.
RANDY CAMPBELL, agent for The Dillards, 2002-2010: I owe my friendship with Douglas to Nancy Cardwell at IBMA, who connected me with Rodney Dillard in Branson, Mo. in the summer of 2002. I found a kinship with Rodney, who was always The Dillards’ bandleader in their many reincarnations and reunions. He was looking for some help to put the finishing touches on an invitation he had from Arlo Guthrie, to play Carnegie Hall with Arlo's family band and Pete Seeger.
I rented a tour bus in Nashville, and that’s where I first laid eyes on Douglas. Rodney followed in a motor home with about 26 "Dillards and friends." We took the whole thing to New York City for Thanksgiving weekend in 2002. The magic was such that I saw some real value in The Dillards--particularly Rodney and Douglas—reuniting. They were both up for it, and it lasted for 7+ years.
JOHN McEUEN, banjo player, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, producer of The Dillards: A Night in the Ozarks - An Audiolithograph (2006): There was a confluence of events that I would trace back to Doug Dillard. If Doug hadn’t gotten me hot to play music on stage, playing the banjo, I wouldn’t have been in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band! And if I hadn’t been in the band, there wouldn’t have been a Will The Circle Be Unbroken album. Thanks to Earl, and Louise Scruggs, we got Maybelle, Earl Huskey, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake.
If Doug hadn’t been influenced by Earl Scruggs, and called on him a long time ago… It’s very strange that the record’s origins go back to Earl through Doug.
BÉLA FLECK, banjo player: Doug Dillard is a guy whose playing always turned me on. He had an amazing drive, and a beautiful clear concept on the banjo. The Dillards’ Live!!! Almost!!! album was an important record and a big favorite for me. Doug somehow was very traditional but open and musical, and different in interesting ways from Earl Scruggs. He also was a very sweet guy, and how ‘bout that crazy smile? Wow, he really meant it, too!
BOBBY OSBORNE, singer/mandolinist; member of IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame: I became great friends with Douglas many years ago. I admired his talents with the banjo. He and his brother Rodney were a credit to bluegrass music and made many friends happy with their style of bluegrass. The group name “”The Dillards” became a household word, and Douglas was a big part of that, with his talent with the five-string banjo. We have lost one of our pioneers of bluegrass. I’m very proud to have known Douglas Dillard. He was one of my dear friends and will be missed by many.
TONY TRISCHKA, banjo player: Doug Dillard singed my brain cells with his crackling tone and full throttle attack. “Dooley,” “Doug's Tune,” “Dixie Breakdown” and “Old Home Place” were all "slicker than deer guts on a door knob" to me, to quote Mitch Jayne. Doug’s playing always made my life a better place to live in.
RODNEY DILLARD: Thanks to the miracle of technology, Doug is part of the history of the genre of music that he played. His legacy will live on. He’ll always be remembered—at least by his brother, me--as one of the finest banjo players that ever played.
For the last few years of Doug’s life, he and Rodney made occasional appearances and even toured together, but Doug’s health finally forced him to go off the road. On Wednesday, May 16, 2012, Douglas Flint Dillard passed away in Nashville, after a long illness. His wife, singer-songwriter Vikki Sallee-Dillard, was by his side. He was 75 years old. Survivors include his older brother Homer Earl Dillard, Jr. of St. Louis, Mo. and his younger brother Rodney Adean Dillard of Branson, Mo. He was interred at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens in Nashville on May 24, 2012. Donations may be made to the Douglas Dillard Legacy Fund, PO Box 90537, Nashville, TN 37209.
KATHY CHIAVOLA: Doug Dillard had a magic; a childlike, mischievous, and joyous spirit. He always had a twinkle in his eye and never met a stranger. He made the best pot of beans I ever had and could not duplicate. When he played the banjo he exuded and conveyed excitement in the sound, the tune, the harmony, the rhythm. He loved it and never tired of it. He could drive 30 hours at a stretch and was generous to a fault. He was, of course, a great musician and songwriter, who played a pivotal role in the development and spread of bluegrass and country rock music. He was a musical adventurer until the end. He will be missed.
VIC JORDAN: He really loved eatin’ cornbread and beans. Doug was down-to-earth country. He always talked about someday opening a restaurant that specialized in cornbread and beans. He was gonna call it "The Windbreaker!"
My wife and I both talked to him when he was in the hospital, and he told both of us he was feeling better, and looking forward to coming over for dinner. My wife said, ‘What would you like?’
He said, “Cornbread and beans!”
GINGER BOATWRIGHT: He was funny; he was generous; he loved a good joke, even if it was on himself; he was loyal to his friends; he was well-spoken--surprising people who interviewed him with his insight and charm; he loved Greek fisherman caps and Western-style shirts and coats; he had two cats he named Willard Dillard. Willard Dillard the 2nd, he taught to box and wink. He'd put up his fists like a prizefighter, and Willard would roll back on his haunches, put his front feet in the air and start punching! The kitty got lotsa treats.
RODNEY DILLARD: The last time I was able to speak with him, we had an extensive talk about our childhood, and about spiritual things. Douglas, as much as anybody I know, was a very spiritual person, and I’d like for people to know that. He was ready to go. He had it together. And he died peacefully, because I think he thought he knew where he was going.
JONATHAN YUDKIN: I think his most important contribution to the bluegrass tradition was the way he was able to bridge all musical barriers without anyone feeling that it was out of place. He took his music from the hardest right to the hardest left of all musical styles, and everyone was just fine with it.
DEAN WEBB, mandolinist, original member of The Dillards; current member of the Missouri Boatride Bluegrass Band: Douglas Flint Dillard was an incredibly innovative banjo player who had a style touching on the super physical which I've not heard or seen anyone else replicate. His style inspired all who heard him. He had a sweet spirit and was a good friend who will be greatly missed.
BÉLA FLECK: He is one of the few guys whose playing made a lot of people go learn to play the banjo. Not all great banjoists have that power, but he did.
RODNEY DILLARD: Douglas had such a sense of wonder about things, like a child. He never lost that. It went along with his ability and his creativity on the five-string banjo. When he played, it was beyond magic; it became spiritual. He reached a place in everybody’s heart and soul, a common denominator that brought a sense of peace and good feeling. He was an encourager when it came to music and picking with other people. He made them sound good and he spurred them to do better than they might have done. He was a musical facilitator in any kind of jam session—he made you feel good when he picked with you.
We need people like that on the planet: people who don’t criticize, but actually put things together. It’s easy to take a watch apart, but it’s very difficult to put one back together again. Douglas was one who could put it together. I’ll miss him very much.
Left: Randy Campbell, Earl Scruggs, and Doug, Victorville, CA - June 2004 (Photo by Rodney Dillard)
Right: Rodney Dillard, Earl, and Doug, Victorville, CA - June 2004 (Photo by Randy Campbell)
Written and collected by Caroline Wright for IBMA, May 2012.
Doug’s long, comprehensive obituary from eBullet, the official newsletter of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club:
The extraordinary Dillards pages at burritobrother.com:
Doug Dillard dies at 75; banjo player, member of the Dillards band (obituary by Randy Lewis for the Los Angeles Times):
Doug Dillard, Banjo Great Who Crossed Genres, Dies at 75 (obituary by Chuck Dauphin for Billboard.com):
Doug Dillard: Bluegrass Banjo Giant, Country-Rock Pioneer (obituary by James Gabeheart for BluegrassToday.com):
Tribute by John McEuen for Nashville.com: