Earlier this week an interview about the Dillards’ best-selling album, Roots and Branches, appeared here. In it, Dillards cofounder Rodney Dillard recalled the making of that album along with rare behind the scenes anecdotes about each song.
Roots and Branches had a checkered recording history, taking nearly two years for the group to complete with famed rock producer Richard Podolor [e.g. Ringo Starr, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper, and Iron Butterfly] at American Recorders in North Hollywood.
The Dillards had concluded the 1960s with two of their most critically acclaimed albums, Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields, released on Jac Holzman’s Elektra label. Nineteen seventy-one found them on Anthem Records and ready to take a further plunge into the rock mainstream.
Although the album may have been more rock influenced with drums, electric bass, keyboards, and electric guitar—the Dillards dropped the orchestral arrangements so prevalent on their previous two albums—it still contained the acoustic, bluegrass elements that made them so beloved when they made their national debut on The Andy Griffith Show. Songs like “Big Bayou,” “Redbone Hound,” “Billy Jack” [both written by Rodney], and especially their a capella rendering of the folk staple, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” are obvious examples.
When Roots and Branches was released in May 1972, it surprised many fans by crossing over into the Billboard pop album chart, remaining there for an impressive 18 weeks but advancing no further than No. 79.
One reason the album went over so well with rock and pop fans was due to the Dillards opening for Elton John during his fourth American tour in the early summer of ’72. It’s likely the album would have charted even higher if Anthem hadn’t been dissolved under much controversy, which Rodney will explain below.
So get ready as more of the Roots and Branches interview is unleashed. Rodney continues to recall the stories behind the songs on the album, beginning with side two. The hilarious anecdote about recording the background vocals on “Sunny Day” is not to be missed. He also clarifies whether he plays any of the songs in concert and why he hasn’t recorded with Podolor again.
One revelation that is sure to surprise Dillards’ fans is their connection to singer-songwriter Cat Stevens. A hint: they recorded one of Stevens’ best known songs and were supposed to have released it first. However, fate had other plans, and it became Stevens’ first bonafide smash.
The Rodney Dillard Interview (Part Four)
Beginning with “Big Bayou” on side two of Roots and Branches, what do you remember about the following songs?
Although Gib Guilbeau [Nashville West, Flying Burrito Brothers] wrote the song, I most likely first heard it on an album by my friend Larry Murray called Sweet Country Suite in 1971. I also sang on that album. Folks tell me it sounds like a song I could have written, and I wholeheartedly agree. Larry was a great writer in his own right.
He was born in Gram Parsons’ hometown of Waycross, Georgia. Larry went out to L.A. and had his own career as a writer. He was on Capitol for awhile with his band Hearts & Flowers, which also included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. Then he became the head writer for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and also wrote for awhile on The Johnny Cash Show.
“I’ve Been Hurt”
It was a good song written by Gary Itri [he played at times with Blues Image, Three Dog Night, and Roger Miller]. He later wrote “Smile For Me” on American Duck.
That’s actually Richie playing a B-3 Hammond Organ at the end of the song, not a synthesizer. There aren’t many keyboards on the album. I played keys on some of the later albums. You know, we played around a lot on Roots and Branches. I remember us being in the studio for hours just poppin’ corks out of jugs to see what kind of rhythm sound we could achieve.
It was about a kid leaving home and going to L.A. to try to make it. The second song I wrote for the project, part of it was autobiographical and part of it was observational – creative license. Kids would come into town and get hung up in that particular culture and lose their way. It became the only A-side released from the album. Richie is playing lead on classical guitar.
That was a tough one but very fun to do [laughs]. You have to remember, it was recorded in the days before you had the ability to hit a keyboard key and play the thing over and over – loop it. You had to do it for real. Those hypnotic “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’s” you hear us singing on the track – I was just messin’ around doing that part, and Richie went, “Hey, let’s do that.”
So we harmonized – Dean, Billy Ray, and myself. You had to keep singing it, and it got unbelievably funny after awhile. We were looking at each other while we sang, and we could hardly get through it. You do “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” for five minutes and see what happens [laughs]. Written by Jack Conrad and Gary Wilhelm, Richie was responsible for the classical guitar on it.
“Man of Constant Sorrow”
This traditional folk song was first recorded 100 years ago [by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky], but it’s been around longer than that. Of course, we all got it from Ralph Stanley.
I was sitting in a booth putting vocals on a track. While I was waiting for engineer Bill Cooper to get the echo correct for the track, I started singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” A cappella. Just messin’ around, very impromptu. Richie exclaimed, “That’s going on the album!”
“It’s About Time”
Chip Douglas [a bassist and producer for both The Turtles and The Monkees] wrote it. Richie would pop his guitar and bend the neck to get that rwhuuurr sound. We did all kinds of weird stuff, but it was always a lot of fun.
I have no idea why we didn’t release it on the album. We released “It’s About Time” in advance of the album as a single [it became The Dillards’ only song to break the Hot 100 at No. 92 in August 1971], so I guess we thought the fans would get more value for their money.
The only way you can hear it is on an mp3 ripped from the original vinyl single. It’s a terrible-sounding copy. If we could locate the master, it would be a different story. All I’ve got is the 45 – no wait, I don’t even have that anymore.
Did you have a good experience during your sojourn with Anthem Records?
First of all, Anthem was a subsidiary of United Artists. We signed with them because it was a small label, and it was founded by Ted Feigin and Lee Lassiff, who originally had White Whale Records. We had recorded two singles for White Whale in 1969, including “One Too Many Mornings.” After The Turtles disbanded [their biggest moneymaker], White Whale was phased out.
Being on Anthem wasn’t the best overall experience for us. When Roots and Branches started climbing the charts, Feigin and Lassiff got in legal trouble. Feigin got an offer to jump to Columbia Records, and he was in some hot water with his partner. Other personal problems, including drugs, caused a rift.
So Feigin and Lassiff had a parting of the ways, and Anthem was dissolved while the record was happening. The distributor then stopped pushing Anthem Records. My luck. It didn’t take very long before the album went out of print [nearly 25 years later, Beat Goes On Records in the UK finally re-released the album, paired with American Duck].
I don’t even know who owns the masters for Roots and Branches. I’ve talked to Richie about it, but he only has a few of the masters. Like everything else, they’re lost somewhere, floating around Hollywood. Who knows where it is. It would take awhile to track them down, but I would definitely be interested in locating, remastering, and making them available to the fans.
Regardless, I became exasperated and signed up with United Artists, the mother company.Tribute To The American Duck resulted in late 1973, along with a solo single I released the next year, “Stone’s Throw Away” / “In My Life” [written by Lennon/McCartney].
“Daddy Was A Mover” [American Duck] is one of Beverly’s favorite songs. I haven’t performed it since I virtually abandoned the electric band, but she wants me to do it. We haven’t figured out how to perform it acoustically yet, since drums are an integral component of it.
Did you guys actually have a connection to Cat Stevens?
Believe it or not, we recorded his song, “Wild World” [Dillard gently sings “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wide world, and I’ll always remember you…”]. It became his first hit single in America [No. 11 Pop] and basically launched his career.
Richie got the song and said he wanted to cut it with us. I loved it, so Richie put a hold on it. That means nobody else was going to record it. Consequently, we went in the studio and recorded it [Cat had not released it yet].
When A&M [Cat’s record label] found out that Richie thought it would be a hit record for The Dillards, they went ahead and released Cat’s version. Although they promised it would be ours first, that’s the business for you. Now you know the story. I think Ritchie has our version somewhere in his archives.
Do you play any songs off Roots and Branches today in concert?
I haven’t done any of the songs from Roots recently. However, I am working up “Redbone Hound.” I am starting to perform some of the songs from Wheatstraw Suite [“Don’t You Cry,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face”] and Copperfields. I haven’t gotten around to Tribute To The American Duck yet.
I’m still doing the new stuff off my last two solo albums and the songs we did during our guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show.
When I get requests for songs on Roots and Branches, sometimes it’s hard to do some of the songs because it requires a different sustain on an instrument. I would be doing Roots and Branches unplugged.
Now when we toured Roots and Branches back in the early ’70s, we stayed true to the record. If there was an electric-based song, that’s how we performed it live. Billy Ray learned Richie’s guitar parts on his Telly.
Just the other day I saw a rare video on YouTube of us performing “Daddy Was A Mover” in 1978 on Austin City Limits. It’s an example of The Dillards playing electric with our Telecasters.
[Author’s Note: During a soundcheck at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival in Waycross, Ga., on Sept. 23, 2011, Rodney performed the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” When this writer mentioned that he first heard the Dillards’ cover on Wheatstraw Suite before the original Beatles version, Rodney seemed to be truly astounding, inquiring, “Really?”].
Why did you not record with Richard Podolor again?
I went through that phase of recording in Hollywood during the ’60s and ’70s, and it was simply time to move on and totally do my own thing. Besides, I spent nearly two years with Richie recording Roots and Branches.
I saw Richie a few years ago, and we had a good long conversation. Everybody just moves on. There’s a certain period of life where things happen. Things change, attitudes change, perspectives change. You keep moving. That’s not to say we couldn’t reunite someday and do another album.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! PART FIVE, entitled “Why the Dillards Will Never Reunite—Rodney Dillard on the Band’s Enduring Legacy,” is available when you click on the link. In it, Rodney tackles the Dillards’ album sales, what it was like to record an album and not be able to add any overdubs, the many reissues of the band’s catalogue, how the Internet has decimated the record industry, and all those nagging reunion questions.
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Further Reading: Former Beatle George Harrison followed up his critically-acclaimed 1970 solo debut, “All Things Must Pass”, with a record that aimed for less lofty aspirations. While yet another number one album, “Living in the Material World” contained one song that remains largely undiscovered by the general record buying public. To read about “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long”, definitely the most Beatlesque and commercial track that deserved to be a hit single, visit the following article: “Rediscovering A Superb Love Song…”
Further Reading No. 2: An esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s sophomore induction class, “Garden Party” singer Rick Nelson was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught on fire en route to a New Year’s Eve gig on December 31, 1985. A rockabilly-themed album was in the final recording stages, and Nelson had found a new record label [Curb]. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer’s vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project, an in-depth feature [“True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson’s Final Album”] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.
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