Review: Rodney Dillard & the Dillard Band- I Wish Life was Like Mayberry
From the liner notes by John McEuen: “Rodney Dillard entered my 17-year-old life by surprise, and it immediately changed immensely. Let me state this: without the Dillards I would not be in the music business, the Dirt Band would not have played bluegrass, and the ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album would not have been made.”
If the above statement does not convince you of the importance of Rodney Dillard and his family in the genesis of what we now call Americana, nothing will. The Dillards released their debut album in 1963 and throughout the remainder of the decade continued to push the envelope of bluegrass, eventually plugging their instruments in and arguably creating the country rock genre. Rodney’s brother Doug later teamed up with former Byrd Gene Clark and the duo released two of the seminal country rock albums under the name Dillard & Clark. The Dillards also played with Elton John on his first U.S. tour.
In addition, they are quite possibly the most famous bluegrass band in history, although not as the Dillards. Between 1963 and 1966, the family appeared on six episodes of The Andy Griffith Show playing the fictional Darling family. The show itself has become a timeless part of American culture, with the town of Mayberry representing the archetypal small town and the concept of Southern hospitality. It is a show that never gets old regardless of how many times you’ve watched the reruns and Rodney Dillard’s latest album, I Wish Life was Like Mayberry, is a wonderful homage to the show and the America that it represents.
As you can guess, the album is quite sentimental at times, but unlike big name critics from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, I don’t feel that this is necessarily a bad thing. The album includes classic songs the Dillards played on the show, such as “Dooley,” “Salty Dog Blues” (which includes lead vocals by Rodney’s wife Beverly), “Ebo Walker,” a beautiful tale of a rural fiddler, the classic hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” and two instrumentals “Doug’s Tune” and “Banjo in the Hollow.” These are all done very well and there is a sense here that Rodney and the band are preserving a dying tradition of songs about faith, family, and American values.
The best of these is “There is a Time,” the tune with hope-filled lyrics drawn from the Bible and featured on three episodes of the show. Fifty more years of living the lyrics have brought more passion and truth to Dillard’s performance here than was present on the ’60s version.
The themes from these classic songs are even more evident on the album’s newer material, beginning with “The Darlin’ Boys,” the second track on the album following a spoken introduction. The song is classic bluegrass with lyrics about the fictional family that could just as well be about the Dillards themselves. “Nobody did it like the Darlin’ boys when it came to the ol’ banjo,” Rodney sings at one point and I doubt if many bluegrass enthusiasts would debate him on that point.
“There Goes the Neighborhood” speaks of the gradual disappearance of rural communities and although it is addressing a serious and troubling topic it does so with a great sense of humor. Those who, like me, live in the country know how that this song, with it’s lyrics about people “playing golf where we used to bale our hay,” who “always got a mobile phone in their hands,” and “are never in the sun, but how they tan,” has a ton of truth to it.
“The Wicker Chair” follows a similar topic about how that “money cannot buy all the things I tried to leave behind.” The tune describes the importance of family, home and community and Dillard’s lyrics drawing from his own story and how he realized that “life ain’t so bad” can just as easily be seen as a parable for this country that “while looking for the future almost lost [it’s] past.”
“The Mayberry Hat” and “The Andy Griffith Show Song,” written by David Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers, discuss the joys of simplicity and the need to have love for your fellow man. There is an undercurrent of Christian faith in some of the lyrics, just as there was on the show itself, but there are also lessons to be found here for people from all walks of life.
The album concludes with five episodes of “The Mayberry Minute,” a national syndicated radio program hosted by Dillard and although these shows continue the themes of the rest of the album about not losing the values and morals of the past and are great the first time, they naturally don’t hold up as well as the musical numbers to repeated listens.
I could simply reiterate that this is one of the best bluegrass releases this year and that the only other album in recent memory to convey as much of a sense of community and the American spirit is the latest from Pete Seeger. I could also try to explain to you the importance of the values and ideals expressed within the album, but I’ll let Neil Young do it for me: “It ain’t a privilege to be on TV,” Young sang in 2003, “and it ain’t a duty either/The only good thing about TV/Is shows like Leave it to Beaver/Shows with love and affection, like mama used to say/A little Mayberry livin’ could go a long way.”