The Dillards - Old Road New Again
It’s been almost 30 years since the Dillards released their last studio album. In the ensuing years, only Rodney Dillard is still alive from the original line-up that set the band in motion way back in 1962. He is joined here by current band members Beverly Cotten-Dillard, Gary Smith, Tony Wray, and George Giddens along with special guest appearances from such luminaries as Don Henley, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon and Cheryl White, Herb Pedersen, Bernie Leadon and Sam Bush. The album is full of twists and turns throughout ... the band hasn’t lost its knack for putting melody in all the right places and while the melody is sometimes offset by melancholy, there’s a humorous and political side to the band as well not to mention some fiery picking as to be expected. In short, this is the Dillards in top form … and it’s an absolute blast!
The original line-up included Rodney's brother, Doug, Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne. One of their picking buddies early on was the wildly inventive John Hartford. The Dillards came from a strong bluegrass tradition but with their novel, light-hearted approach, coupled with the fact that during the 1960s, they themselves were a younger group, they helped bring bluegrass to a wider audience, both through their records and their appearances on television and film. Without the Dillards and their influence on the Byrds, the Flying Burritos and the Eagles, there might not have been contemporary country-rock as we now know it. Very much a family affair, the Dillards survived folk revival waves and ripples as well as country-rock's semi-successful bid for domination of rock's middle ground, all the while remaining one of the most popular bluegrass bands in America. Their influence was spread far and wide from Elton John to Led Zeppelin to the newgrass bands that emerged during the 1970s, hence the impressive line-up of guest singers and musicians to be heard here.
Lead-off track Earthman provides a sweetly shimmering introduction that seduces listeners right from the get-go. It’s a reflective, melodic tune, with stripped back instrumentation that focuses mainly on guitar, mandolin and fiddle with Herb Pedersen adding to the smooth Laurel Canyon harmonies. They add a bluegrass flair to the old 1960s pop classic Save The Last Dance For Me. Sharon and Cheryl White provide warm, enjoyable vocals alongside delicate percussion and bass that keep it all in motion with fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin flourishes. Mike Reid’s Always Gonna Be You seeped in wistful repose, is a gorgeous Rodney and Beverly duet with Don Henley adding sweet harmonies on the chorus. A simple yet effective clawhammer banjo and string quartet is proof that fury and frenzy isn’t necessarily needed to make an exacting impression. Listen in particular to the way Rodney and Herb weave their voices and a lilting fiddle together on Common Man a song of contentment that is rare and beautiful. Sweet Companion, a co-write by Sally Barris, Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall is a delightful song about a couple who have left troubles behind as they celebrate the joy of each other … conjugal and musical bliss with a rolling melody guided by acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin.
Barnyard melodies have been a part of old time and bluegrass music from the earliest days. Tunes like Arkansas Traveller, Chicken Reel, Turkey In The Straw and Cluck Old Hen are emblematic of this style, some using a sort of musical onomatopoeia to mimic the sounds of the creatures that would populate the world where rural Americans lived during the 20th century. The Dillards offer their own take with Funky Ole Hen featuring Beverly on clawhammer banjo and vocals. She kicks it into drive on a self-penned song that begs to have a whole room of people up clogging to it. Take Me Along for the Ride is a politically charged song about the misconceptions of the American Dream. Co-written by Rodney and Mitch Jayne in the early 1990s this is powered by symbolic lyrics, driving acoustic guitar/fiddle and steady acoustics, the song brings a light sound to a heavy topic. Not to my liking, though, is the flag-waving Tearing Our Liberty Down, a song that belongs more to Hank Williams Jr than on this album. They redeem themselves neatly with My Last Sunset a positive look back on a life well-lived with a definite Eagles-esque sound with rolling banjo, toe-tapping rhythm and west coast harmonies provided by Herb Pedersen and Don Henley. That is followed by the title song, a mini-history of the Dillards’ musical journey that name-checks many of the California acts that they influenced from the Kentucky Colonels through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Buffalo Springfield. It’s fitting that Bernie Leadon, Don Henley and Herb Pedersen add their harmony vocals to this memorable song.
After a lengthy absence it is plainly obvious that the Dillards found a voice in the studio as a conversation between old friends. There is a simplicity to the music that makes for a sound that is airy and clean, signalling that the members of this group know how to cut away the fat in the studio and come away with a fine-tuned mix of bluegrass and west coast country-rock. They show a certain amount of restraint even when combining their collective efforts, easing into the instrumental arrangements with quiet confidence without feeling the need to overwhelm the listener.