By Richie Unterberger

While many folk and bluegrass fans are familiar with the Greenbriar Boys, relatively few are familiar with the unusual one-off album they did as the backup album for Dian James. Issued by Elektra around late 1963, Dian & the Greenbriar Boys did not make a big splash, in part because the singer and the band barely performed together outside of the recording studio. Their brief collaboration, however, did produce a worthwhile album of country-tinged folk, mixing material from a variety of sources.

    Dian James, according to the original LP liner notes, first became interested in country music at the age of thirteen, and subsequently performed on television shows oriented toward country-and-western listeners. As Dian & the Greenbriar Boys producer Jim Dickson remembers, James was a cousin of Randy Newman, and at the time he met her, she was the girlfriend of Travis Edmonson, half of the folk duo Bud and Travis. "She sang along with a Peter, Paul & Mary record at her house and I was impressed," he explains. "I had done some work for [Elektra founder-president] Jac Holzman and told him about her."

    Dickson was producing a number of adventurous recordings at the time by folk artists such as the Dillards, Dino Valenti, Hamilton Camp, and the Modern Folk Quartet, and thought it work well to team James and the Greenbriar Boys after seeing the bluegrass band at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. "There was nothing planned," explains Bob Yellin, the Greenbriar Boys' banjo player. "We were on one of our regular tours, and Jim Dickson brought her to hear us. She came backstage, and was very excited. She wanted to sing a song with us onstage. I guess we must have sang something in the dressing room. It sounded good enough to be interesting to the audience, so we did a couple songs with her onstage, and that was the beginning of the idea. We decided to stay an extra week in Los Angeles, put that thing together at Dian's house, and then recorded it in a couple of days." Dickson's productions put a greater emphasis on rhythmic ensemble playing than many folk recordings of the time featured, and he enlisted his friend Jimmy Bond to play bass on the album, as he did for sessions by numerous other artists.

    Dickson also says that Holzman "okayed the Greenbriar Boys because they had played on a Joan Baez album," though Yellin does not remember this. The Greenbriar Boys were recording on their own at the time for rival folk label Vanguard, and "that was a bit of a bone of contention," Bob admits. "I remember they had to call [Vanguard executive] Maynard Solomon, and he wasn't overjoyed by the whole idea. But he let us do it, because we wanted to do it." Yellin had, in fact, played on an Elektra album about five years before this project, Paul Clayton's 1958 LP Unholy Songs of Matrimony (also issued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), on which he accompanied Clayton on banjo and cithern.

    The material selected for the LP was diverse, including traditional numbers that had been popularized by country star Roy Acuff ("Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down"), Leadbelly ("Alabama Bound"), and early country guitarist Riley Puckett ("Giving Everything Away"). There was also Leadbelly's Green Corn"; "Brown's Ferry Blues," by the great country harmonizing duo the Delmore Brothers; and "Cannon Ball Blues," by A.P. Carter of the Carter Family. "Sweet Willie," collected by Margot Mayo, was put to a melody by folksinger Jean Ritchie, and "Master's Bouquet," "Precious Lord," and "Tramp on the Street" were all, according to the original liner notes, adapted from the singing of country star Rose Maddox. "If I Were Free" was written by Travis Edmonson, who according to Yellin "was around quite a bit, listening to the songs and making suggestions. Mostly we suggested songs for it. I used to carry a Bill Clifton songbook around, and we pulled out a few songs out of there." Clifton was a major bluegrass musician himself, and his 150 Old-Time Folk and Gospel Songs had circulated widely in the folk and bluegrass community since its mid-1950s publication.

    "Dian was a fan of Rose Maddox, as was I from childhood, and she selected several songs from that source," adds Dickson. "Some songs came from [Greenbriar Boys mandolinist] Ralph Rinzler, such as 'Green Corn.' As long as we all agreed, we proceeded." "He Was a Friend" used an arrangement from emerging singer Hoyt Axton, who also added new lyrics. As "He Was a Friend of Mine," a variation of the song would appear a couple of years later on the second album by the Byrds, the folk-rock pioneers co-managed by Dickson in their early years.

    Both Dickson and the Greenbriar Boys were pleased with the results. "We felt like it was a good group sound," remarks Yellin. "Dian had a ton of energy. It was very different for us. We'd never done anything like that before." The website of the late Greenbriar Boys guitarist John Herald states that "Elektra was convinced it had crossover possibilities into the pop market," but as Dickson concedes, "the album didn't sell well. We did release 'He Was a   Friend of Mine' as a single and it was played on [Los Angeles radio station] KFWB by my friend B. Mitchell Reid, but Elektra wasn't ready to promote a single yet."

    Nor did Dian & the Greenbriar Boys promote the album with any live appearances, though Yellin thinks they appeared with her on the network television folk music show Hootenanny. Nor did Dian James release anything else on Elektra, and according to Dickson, "there never were any plans to record her again." The Greenbriar Boys continued to record well-received albums for Vanguard, splitting after 1966's Better Late Than Never!, which included the original version of Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum" (covered for a hit the following year by Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys). Jim Dickson, of course, was a major force in the birth of folk-rock as the co-manager and early artistic mentor of the Byrds, later producing members of the band in solo projects and the Flying  Burrito Brothers. Dian James's legacy, however, is pretty much contained in this rare Elektra album, at long last made available again with this CD reissue. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 unless otherwise specified.