While the impact that the Dillards had on the emergence of country-rock in the late 1960s is one of the least appreciated chapters in the biography of California music, their musical rhetoric isn’t. After throwing their instruments into their car and bidding their beloved Ozark Mountains a fond farewell for Hollywood, the Dillards enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, signed to Elektra Records and took their contemporary bluegrass styling to the world. Along the way, they starred on the Andy Griffith show (as the musical Darling family), wreaked havoc amongst their more traditional peers by electrifying their instruments, and opened the ears of the likes of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers to the down-home sounds of America’s heartland. For almost five decades the Dillards have been spreading their musical joy, and on Tuesday night they will offer Ventura a share of their charm. VCReporter spoke with Rodney Dillard — who, with his brother Doug, makes up the core of the ensemble — from his home at the foot of the Ozark Mountains
VCR: You guys literally packed up your car and headed west. That must have been quite an experience.
R.D.:Going from the Ozark Mountains and heading out your way, as you can well imagine, was like going to the other side of the planet. Especially going to Hollywood. We left home with $9.50, a ’55 Cadillac and a one-wheel trailer, and the four of us piled in there with a bass. We made it as far as Oklahoma City, where we ran out of money. So we did all sorts of odd jobs and slept in oil fields and ate crackers out of waste baskets, and finally we got enough money together to get to Hollywood. I can never forget waking up out there and looking out the window onto the freeway. I just couldn’t believe where I was.
Once you got to Hollywood, things seemed to happen quite quickly for you …
We ended going into a club called The Ashgrove and it was the petri dish of folk music. We just walked in and broke out our instruments and started playing, and the owner invited us up on stage. As it so happened, the owner of Elektra records, Jim Dickson, and someone from the William Morris agency were both there. In that one night we managed to secure a producer, a record company and an agent.
The Andy Griffith Show was another major stepping stone for you. How did that fuel the awareness of your music?
The great thing about what we did, and what I owe a lot to Andy Griffith for, was he knew we wouldn’t make much money as actors because we weren’t speaking, and at that time they didn’t have residuals. But he made sure they got as much of our music on television as they could. And before they cut it all up, we were averaging four to five songs per episode. So there have been 25 of our songs playing for 50 years. That’s like having one huge album. It did well by us.
While the rewards are now obvious, at the time was joining the program a difficult decision?
At the time I didn’t want to do it because I thought it would stereotype us. At that time they were doing hillbilly shows that undermined the dignity if what country people were really like. And I didn’t appreciate that because we came from a part of America that really treasured family values. Hollywood depicted us as people running around bare foot with no teeth, chasing our sisters. And that’s why I didn’t like that movie O’ Brother [Where Art Thou], because they were depicting rural people as having absolutely no sense at all.
You were based out here when California was establishing its own musical identity. What was it like to be at the forefront of that?
It was a wonderful time. Gram Parsons, he came out from Florida, and there were all these guys and we would all sit around together and pick and exchange ideas. It was a time when that happened — like when the artists sat around French cafes drinking absinthe. In one place, guys like Phil Oaks and Linda Ronstadt and Eric Burden and us would sit around and sing gospel songs a cappella. Those were still the folk days, just before we got in with the Byrds. It was a wonderful time.
The Dillards will perform Tuesday, Feb. 24, at Zoey’s Café, 451 E. Main St., Ventura. 653-1137, www.zoeyscafe.com.