Nearly 60 years ago, a 20-year-old Missouri lad named Rodney Dillard stood in front of Andy Griffith on a Desilu soundstage in Hollywood and was asked to sing and play his guitar.
Standing beside him was his banjo-picking brother, Doug, and their bandmates, bass fiddle player Mitch Jayne and mandolin player Dean Webb.
Griffith, star of “The Andy Griffith Show,” was looking for a bluegrass band to portray the rangy-looking Darling boys on his hit CBS sitcom.
“We went over to audition, and director Bob Sweeney stopped shooting a scene, and we began playing,” said Dillard. “Halfway through it, Andy, who was sitting right in front of us, said, ‘That’s it.’ He knew what he wanted. We were only supposed to do one episode, but we wound up doing six.
“It was at a time when things moved slower. We went on to doing different things, but it’s been a really great ride and still is,” said Dillard, whose first appearance on the show was originally broadcast on March 18, 1963, in the episode titled “The Darlings Are Coming.”
Dillard is one of just a few actors who appeared in at least five episodes of the show who were adults when they were on the show and are still alive. Others include Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou), Elinor Donahue (Ellie Walker) and Maggie Peterson (Charlene Darling).
The only surviving Darling boy will be coming to Granville for its second annual Mayberry-I Love Lucy Day as he and his wife, Beverly, headline the Saturday, April 10 event. They will be joined by Allan Newsome, a spot-on Floyd the barber tribute artist; Rik Roberts, a Deputy Barney Fife impersonator; and jug-toting Bo Pierce as Briscoe Darling, who puts on his best Denver Pyle face as the head of the Darling clan.
Also on hand will be marvelous Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz tribute artists Carrie and Jeff Ketterman. The couple travels the U.S. in their Not So Long Trailer (named in honor of the 1954 movie, “The Long, Long Trailer,” which starred Ball and Arnaz) and recreate bits and songs from the beloved “I Love Lucy” series.
Dillard will do one-hour meet-and-greet sessions and perform with wife Beverly at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and also will perform three songs at 6:30 p.m. on “The Sutton Ole Time Music Hour.” Likely, he will do several of the tunes that he and The Dillards played on the “Griffith” show such as “Dooley,” “Ebo Walker,” “There Is a Time” and/or “Hickory Hollow.”
“I want to tell stories about how these songs came about, and I will tell some stories about ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ that nobody will know unless they hear them from me. That show was so positive and fun. I want to help them read between the lines of what they hear and see on TV: how the people got along and some of the tricks Andy pulled on Don Knotts and about Denver Pyle,” said Dillard, who hangs his hat at his home in Branson, Mo.
Addressing the TV series and Griffith’s North Carolina hometown, Dillard noted, “The show has just hung in there. Everybody wants to keep those things alive through different things. In Mount Airy they have the Andy Griffith Museum and little businesses like Snappy Lunch. They cling to something that has some sort of security to it. We seem to have lost our tether. In Mayberry they didn’t have cell phones or the latest technology, but they didn’t have a spirt of fear either.
“With this virus, we’ve all gotten into our own space and bubble, and paranoia has set in, but I enjoy playing music and talking to people who love the old shows like ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ ”
Still making music
The musician released his most recent album, “Old Road New Again,” last fall.
“This album is just a little bit different. Don Henley did three songs with me, and Ricky Skaggs did a song, ‘They’re Tearing Our Liberty Down,’ that my wife wrote along with a Mississippi pastor and his son. We take you along for the ride, and it’s the history of America,” he said.
Rodney and brother, Doug, who grew up in Salem, Mo., formed The Dillards while Rodney was still in high school.
“Doug and I played little dances and square dances. We played with John Hartford for a while.
Then we began picking with Mitch Jayne, who was deejay on a little station in Salem, and Dean Webb, a friend in Jefferson City, and decided to do something about it. We cut an album in St. Louis instead of going to Nashville,” he recalled.
“We decided to go to Los Angeles because Mitch’s sister, who worked for a production company owned by David Wolper, found us a manager. So we jumped in a ’55 Cadillac with $9.50 and a one-wheel trailer. We ran through our money in four weeks but made it to Oklahoma City and got a job at The Buddhi, a folk club, and made $300, enough to get us to L.A.”
After arriving in Los Angeles, they checked into a motel on Melrose Avenue, where rooms were rented by the hour, and then made their way to a club called The Petri Dish, which later became The Comedy Store.
“We walked in there and started playing in the lobby, and a guy came out who owned the club and said, ‘You can’t do that here. Do it on stage.’ So we went up there on stage and we ended up getting a record deal with Elektra and signing with the William Morris Agency. It happened quick.”
The Dillards released their first Elektra album, “Back Porch Bluegrass,” in 1963.
From the Mayberry set
Getting back to the music they performed on the “Griffith” show, Dillard recalls Andy Griffith saying, “Now boys, you’re not going to make any money acting, maybe $300 apiece. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get as many of your songs on the air as I can.”
Dillard is still appreciative of that kindness. “That meant three or four songs on each episode that we had written. That’s a gift that keeps on giving, and Andy knew that.”
Other than wonderful memories, Dillard has few mementoes of those heady days spent on the Mayberry set. However, he still has the guitar he played on the TV show — a 1963 Martin D-28. It is currently for sale at Carter Vintage Guitars in downtown Nashville.
As for what appearances by The Dillards on “The Andy Griffith Show” meant for the band members’ careers, Rodney said, “It was a very interesting situation. It was almost like we had the stage act and then we had the Darlings. The TV show provided us a broader audience, and it took bluegrass to people who didn’t know what it was.
“We had our career doing college concerts, playing major venues and being on TV shows. I remember doing 32 colleges in 30 days. We were on the run, but, my goodness, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ is now 61 years old and the persona of the Darlings remains.”