Andy Griffith’s Mayberry: Americana Lost and Found
When most people think back to the ’60s, some things that might come to mind could be the social, cultural, and political changes; exploration of recreational drugs; the sexual revolution; and otherwise turbulent times. And yet, as the world was caught up in Sputniks and satellites and a rapid rush toward modernization and suburbia, one of the most popular television shows of that era was The Andy Griffith Show, which took place in the fictional town of Mayberry in North Carolina. Multiple generations of city dwellers made this a perennial top-ten rated show from its debut in 1960 until the end in 1968, using it as a 30-minute escape into a time gone by. It was both nostalgic and contemporary, featuring an ensemble of actors who found their way into our hearts, from Opie to Aunt Bee, Barney Fife to Floyd the barber, Ernest T. Bass to Gomer Pyle.
The original country-bumpkin-hillbilly Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Griffith, developed into to what author Richard Kelley describes as “rock-solid … stepping in as problem solver, mediator, advisor, disciplinarian and counselor.” He was the steady hand in the small Southern rural town with hardly any crime, barely any African-Americans and a cast of characters who created comedic chaos on a weekly basis with the good sheriff making it all better. And in addition to the philosophical country wisdom and tender moments, Griffith – himself a professional musician – brought us some great old-time music.
Making their first of eight appearances beginning in 1963 through the 1966 season, the Darlings were a trouble-making Appalachian clan with actor Denver Pyle playing the jug-playing patriarch Briscoe Darling and Maggie Peterson as his daughter Charlene. The four sons were played by the real-life bluegrass group the Dillards, featuring Doug Dillard on banjo, his brother Rodney on guitar and dobro, mandolinist Dean Webb, and Mitch Jayne on double bass. Along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who had recurring roles on The Beverly Hillbillies during the same time period, this was likely most of the country’s urban and suburban introduction to old time music.
As a kid from Philadelphia who would tune into the Wheeling Jamboree on Saturday nights when I could pick up the WWVA radio signal and who had access to my aunt’s Anthology of American Folk Music albums, the music wasn’t foreign to me, but I’d never seen it actually being played. Watching Griffith and the Dillards/Darlings simulate it on a television soundstage was as much a musical awakening as the first time I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sometime in the mid-’60s, the Dillards decided to electrify themselves, and in 1968 Doug left the group to join ex-Byrds member Gene Clark. Their first album was The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, and some of the backing musicians included the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, Eagles founding member Bernie Leadon, and fiddler Byron Berline, who would eventually form Country Gazette. Another Byrd, Michael Clarke, was their touring drummer.
The Dillards weren’t the only people making music in Mayberry. In the third episode of the first season, Andy is happy to once again arrest wayward guitar player Jim Lindsey (played by actor James Best) on a charge of disturbing the peace, because it means he and Jim can play duets while Jim sits behind bars. After hearing a stellar performance of “New River Train,” Andy wonders if the young prodigy isn’t squandering his gifts and reasons that Jim could be bigger than “that fella we see every now and then on television, shakin’ and screamin’. (IMDB)
There is also a connection to another future Byrd: Clarence White, who joined the band in July 1968 as Gram Parsons’ replacement. The episode was filmed either in the first or second year of the show, and Andy auditions for a man who comes to Mayberry looking to record authentic folk singers for a new album. This was when the band was still called The Country Boys and right before they changed their name to The Kentucky Colonels. Here you have all three White brothers: Clarence, Roland, and Eric along with Billy Ray Lathum and LeRoy MacNees.
Griffith had his hand in music throughout his long career, including a 1959 release called Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs which featured guest appearances by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. And while most people will remember him as Sheriff Andy Taylor or his later acting role as Matlock, Griffith was a serious musician who won the Grammy in 1997 for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album, beating out Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Doyle Lawson, and Ricky Van Shelton.
I’m going to close this out with one more trip back to Mayberry and a tip of the hat to a man who gets little credit for his contribution to roots music and latter-day Americana.
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