By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
June 10, 2012 - 1:45 pm
For many of us, his playing was our first taste of the mandolin. Now, on a recent Saturday night, Dean Webb bounced clear notes off hotel walls in Kansas City as convention goers smiled, tapped toes and some asked, what is that instrument?
I thought the same thing as a wee lad watching the Andy Griffith show in the early 1960s. The Darling Family arrived in Mayberry and one guy toted a little instrument with a curl on top, ancient looking and distinctive. Analytical thinking did not interfere with pure joy in my grade school years so all I knew was, I loved the music.
Simple beauty and notes played with feeling are what strike me about Webb's mandolin playing a half century later. When he steps up to mic for a solo, his right hand whips out authoritative notes. He can play it pretty or rock solid like Monroe pounding nails into the cabin.
It's easy for us to forget that Dean Webb has given a lifetime to playing mandolin, and that as a member of the Dillards he influenced bluegrass, newgrass and country rock. The popularity of the Darling family episodes in Andy Griffith reruns is what makes people at this, an international convention of hunter safety education instructors, pose for photographs alongside Webb. And even for hardcore acoustic musicians, it's easy for the conversation to veer into who he's met or jammed with, which is all the greats from Dave Apollon to David Grisman.
Photo credit: Bill Graham.
On this evening, there's extra emotion in his playing as his band starts a second set for the convention goers milling in a lobby. We'd talked about the news that Doc Watson had died.
"We worked a lot of shows with Doc," Webb said.
The week prior, he'd attended a memorial service in Nashville for Doug Dillard — friend, band mate and banjo great.
This came not too far after the death of Earl Scruggs. The Dillards toured with Flatt and Scruggs.
"Earl always woke up about 4 a.m. because he'd been used to that," Webb said. "He'd tell the driver to go take a nap and he'd drive the bus. I got onto that and I'd get up with him and sit in the passenger seat, and he'd tell me stories. He told some good ones. Earl had a really dry sense of humor."
Webb — blue jeans, blue shirt and silver hair — gets up to tune up for the second set.
"It's kind of wrenching to lose three people like that so close together," he said. "It hits you kind of hard."
Set photograph from February 4, 1963 during the filming of The Darlings Are Coming, Season 3, Episode 25, that originally aired March 18, 1963. L-R: Dean Webb, Doug Dillard, Mitch Jayne and Rodney Dillard. Photo used with permission from Retro Web Classic Television
Below: The Dillards making an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show as the Darling Family.
Bluegrassers have lonely moments.
A few days earlier at this convention, which I covered as a media guy, I found myself at a lunch table with a group from Indiana.
"Have you guys ever been to Bean Blossom?" I asked.
One gentleman replied that he lives in the Indiana town and can hear the festival music from his front yard. But it was clear from his sarcastic tone that he doesn't like the music and crazy people who do. Another mentioned that he lives 12 miles away, but no, he's never been inside the famous bluegrass festival gates.
"We've lost some of the greats this year," I said. "I just heard this morning on the radio that Doc Watson died."
They look at me blankly. They do not know who Doc Watson is.
So it's welcome news later in the day when a friend mentions that The Missouri Boatride based in Branson, Mo., is the entertainment before and after the conference banquet. And he mentions that one of the Darlings is in the band.
The Missouri Boatride is a fine straight-ahead bluegrass band with on-the-money vocals and tasty instrumental work. Justin Sifford is a gifted young vocalist and his dad, Larry Sifford, is steady on bass. Bob Gideon on banjo and Dennis Pritchard on fiddle are polished. They can crank up high speed tunes, too. They kick off the second set with a ripping version of Mississippi Sawyer.
L-R: Larry Sifford on bass, Dean Webb, Justin Sifford on guitar, Bob Gideon on banjo, Dennis Pritchard on fiddle. Photo credit: Bill Graham.
Webb, now in his mid-70s, chops on the money and then steps to the mic and plays his solos with grace — on pace. Impressive. It's been a long road trip for him that started not too far from this hotel.
A show-biz tale for the Dillards is that they all crawled out of hillbilly cabins in the eastern Missouri Ozark Mountains, near the town of Salem. Doug and Rodney Dillard had family roots there but lived in East St. Louis when the Dillards band began.
Webb was born and raised in Independence, Mo., a Kansas City suburb in western Missouri prairie country. He graduated from William Chrisman High School in 1955. His father ran gas stations and his mother was a nurse. An uncle played Texas swing on the Brush Creek Follies, Kansas City's 1950s version of the Grand Ole Opry. His cousins were into bluegrass. They already played banjo, guitar and fiddle.
"I thought I'd play the mandolin so I could fit in," Webb said.
His first instrument was a 50s era Gibson A-50. But it wasn't long until he bought a better instrument, a new Gibson F-5.
"I paid $550 for it, and that included the case."
Webb heard Monroe on the radio and was smitten by his early 50s recordings, including the ramped-up version of Blue Moon of Kentucky, which Big Mon re-recorded after Elvis made it a rock 'n roll hit.
"Bluegrass was rare," he said. "The more rare something was, the more I was interested in it."
Webb also taught himself to play standup bass so he could play country music in honky tonks, his first paying gigs. Those bands usually only played bluegrass-style tunes as an intro or an exit from sets.
But as the Sixties began, he was playing mandolin with bands such as Lonnie Hoppers and the Ozark Mountain Boys. They worked out of Hermitage, Mo., but also played steady television jobs at stations in Springfield and Joplin. Webb was in front of a TV camera prior to the Andy Griffith show.
A little circuit of bluegrass musicians developed, including people connected with Lee Mace's Ozark Opry at Lake of the Ozarks. Through them, Webb was introduced to Doug and Rodney Dillard.
A bit later, the Dillard brothers called to say they wanted to start a band, head to Los Angeles and play folk music. Rehearsal and demo recording began in East St. Louis. Mitch Jayne joined, and Webb taught him how to play bass and use a C-tuning that he developed in country gigs. In 1962, an epic, trial-filled road trip followed that is part of Dillards' lore.
But the band had entertainment business connections in L.A. through Jayne's sister. They cleaned up at her house the first day in town, and that night went to the Ash Grove folk music club. Webb recognized a man standing in the club as the Greenbriar Boys mandolin player, Ralph Rinzler, from a photo he'd seen in a folk music magazine. He struck up a conversation.
"It doesn't take long for two mandolin players to become acquainted."
Rinzler's band was playing the Ash Grove and invited the Missouri pickers on stage that night. One thing quickly led to another for the Dillards because of that appearance, including a recording contract with Elektra Records. An entertainment magazine blurb about the contract led to appearances on the Andy Griffith Show. Rinzler would become among the most important figures in bluegrass and folk music, such as the finder of Doc Watson and the savior for Monroe's career and legacy. Major, big name, California country-rock stars would absorb Dillards' influences. A who's who list would perform with them, too, such as Byron Berline and Herb Pederson.
During that early period, Webb and Doug Dillard helped Monroe fill a date when a Bluegrass Special bus breakdown delayed a couple of band regulars. They each got to choose a tune to be featured with Monroe. Dillard picked Rawhide and Webb, playing bass, chose The First Whip-poor-will. Both refused to take pay after the gig.
"I thought you were smart boys until now," Monroe told them.
But several times in the years to follow the Master bought them breakfast, remembering.
The Dillards also rubbed shoulders with folk-rock legends.
Webb drove past a studio one night and recognized producer Jim Dickson's car parked outside. He went in. The Byrds were having trouble lining out the harmonies for Mr. Tamborine Man. Dickson asked for help.
"The guy singing lead did his part," Webb said. "Then I recorded a tenor part and then a baritone part over that. Then the guys doing the harmonies memorized their parts listening to the tape of what I'd done."
In the 1970s, hip bands playing a mix of bluegrass and newgrass onstage dug through old records looking for a copy of the Dillards' progressive Wheatstraw Suite album, released in 1968. Back then, you found Dillards albums in stores where no other bluegrass was available because they were on a major label.
I couldn't hear Webb's mandolin very well in 1972 when the Dillards opened shows for Elton John's first U.S. tour. Bluegrass had grabbed me and I went to Brewer Field House on the University of Missouri campus anxious to hear the Dillards. But rock n' roll sound men of those days didn't know how to mix acoustic music. Maybe that's why Webb and company were among the pioneers in amplifying hillbilly instruments to reach audiences in large and loud venues.
Webb took the mandolin beyond the usual bluegrass parameters. For proof, check out this 1978 Dillards appearance on Austin City Limits.
The Dillards on Austin City Limits, 1978. Rodney Dillard on guitar and vocals, Dean Webb on mandolin, Billy Ray Lathum (ex-Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White) on banjo and electric guitar, Paul York on drums and Jeff Gilkinson on bass.
Decades later, I'm listening as Webb plays pure bluegrass and his Weber Fern F-5 comes through a small PA in the hotel lobby loud and clear. He's owned a bunch of mandolins. The songs played by the Darlings for Andy were recorded in a studio, and Webb used his first Gibson F-5. As they lip-synced for filming, he held Gibson F-2 or F-4 mandolins because they looked older. You see the F-5 in at least two episode, too. Webb sold his favorite mandolin, a 1927 Gibson F-5 Fern, years ago but likes the Weber a lot.
It's how they're played that counts, though.
"I always tried to play the mandolin like a character actor," Webb said. "I always tried to make my playing fit the character of the song."
Back Porch Bluegrass, The Dillards first recording on Elektra, 1963.
At the KC convention, the guitar player announces: "we're going to sing an original tune." They launch into Old Home Place, one of the greatest bluegrass classics, which Webb co-wrote with Jayne. It debuted on Back Porch Bluegrass, the Dillards first Elektra album released in 1963.
Webb takes his mandolin solo and finds that picker's place where spirit adds something extra to the notes. The audience applauds. For many, this is the first mandolin playing they've ever heard.
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