By Richie Unterberger
Before the Dillards issued Wheatstraw Suite in 1968, they had been primarily known as a bluegrass group whose audience was found almost exclusively among folkies. To the general public, they were known mostly for their guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show. But Wheatstraw Suite unveiled a new Dillards who were not exactly bluegrass, not exactly folk-rock, and not exactly country-rock. They were all of those things and more, and yet too versatile and eclectic to be pigeonholed into any of those genres.
Wheatstraw Suite may have been a modest seller, but it was a groundbreaking fusion of folk, rock, country, and even pop sensibilities. The guitars and mandolin that had anchored the Dillards' sound in their pure bluegrass days were embellished by a country pedal steel and electric rock rhythm section. Some tasteful occasional orchestration pushed some of the material toward the pop market, and first-class group originals were complemented by imaginative covers of songs by the Beatles, Tim Hardin, and obscure folk-rocker Jesse Kincaid. The constant elements were those magnificent soaring vocal harmonic blends, which had already been influential on folk-rock originators like the Byrds, and would influence 1970s country-pop-rockers like the Eagles.
Wheatstraw Suite might have startled listeners expecting another bluegrass outing along the lines of their previous three Elektra albums. Actually, however, the group had been moving toward a more contemporary sound for a few years, though Wheatstraw Suite was their first opportunity to put it on a full-length album. They had been doing Bob Dylan material as early as 1964, when they put his "Walkin' Down the Line" (which Dylan had yet to put on one of his official releases) on their Live...Almost LP. In the mid-1960s they toured with the Byrds, with whom they shared management. Dewey Martin even toured as the Dillards' drummer briefly before joining Buffalo Springfield. "On some of these tours with [the Byrds], we were starting to experiment with plugging in our instruments," notes the Dillards' Dean Webb. "I was playing electric mandolin. Douglas [Dillard] had an electric 12-string guitar, and started finger-picking it."
By that time the Dillards were on a brief vacation from Elektra, which was, Webb says, surprisingly resistant to some of the band's progressive inclinations. He remembers that the band had wanted to update a song called "Hey Mr. Banjo" into one called "Hey Mr. Five-String," "and Elektra was horrified at the idea. It just wasn't folky enough for them. Too commercial." The group cut a couple of rare mid-1960s singles for Capitol in the folk-rock bag, the tracks including a cover of Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Lemon Chimes," and "Nobody Knows" (the last two of which would be redone for Wheatstraw Suite). They also did unreleased versions of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" (again, redone for Wheatstraw Suite) and Bob Dylan's "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." It was also likely around this time that they recorded a couple of songs that showed up on the Early L.A. various-artists rarities compilation on Together Records, including an early version of yet another song that would show up on Wheatstraw Suite, "Don't You Cry."
"Curly Walters signed us to [Capitol], seemed to understand exactly what we wanted to do, and we never saw the guy again," recalls Webb. "Then they started putting us with all these other producers. I don't know how many we went through. And none of 'em seemed to understand the kind of material we wanted to do." Adds Rodney Dillard, "We asked for a release [from Capitol], 'cause they didn't know what to do with us either. Elektra seemed to understand what we wanted to do at that point."
The Dillard re-signed with Elektra, and another big change would take place before the band recorded Wheatstraw Suite. Doug Dillard, unhappy with the group's direction, left the group. (He subsequently toured live on electric banjo with the Byrds in 1968, and then teamed up with ex-Byrd Gene Clark to form a cult country-rock band, Dillard & Clark.) Herb Pedersen, then working with the Nashville duo Vern and Ray, had the difficult job of replacing the banjo virtuoso. Yet Pedersen turned a potential minus into a plus, bringing along not only his "Nashville rhythm guitar" (as it's credited on the sleeve), but also his fine tenor vocals. These fit in well with the group's harmonies, and Pedersen ended up splitting the lead singing with Rodney Dillard on the album (Webb shares lead with Rodney on "I've Just Seen a Face").
The quartet of Dillards (also including Mitch Jayne on acoustic bass) was fleshed out with session maestro Buddy Emmons on pedal steel; Joe Osborne, a veteran L.A. sessionaire of classic hits by the likes of Rick Nelson and the Mamas and the Papas, on electric bass; and Jim Gordon (later of Derek & the Dominos) and Toxey French on drums. The Dillards had already stockpiled a bunch of material from their long hiatus between albums. In addition to revamping some songs from their mid-1960s Capitol singles and unreleased sessions from that era, they added standout originals like "Hey Boys" and "Listen to the Sound." Combined with tasteful interpretations of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," Jesse Kincaid's "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune" (also done by Harry Nilsson and Hearts & Flowers), and the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" (one of the most bluegrass-influenced rock songs of all time), it made for a cornucopia of folk, bluegrass, rock, country, and pop that nevertheless felt natural and unforced. There was even a 38-second snatch of an cappella traditional bluegrass tune, "I'll Fly Away," to lead off the album.
"I wanted to take what I'd learned in my root music, what I grew up with, and apply that in a broader rhythmical sense and structure," explains Rodney Dillard. "I wanted to change rhythmically, but still maintain those instruments that gave the identity to that mountain stuff that we did. When you do that R&B-meets-bluegrass, you come up with some other kind of thing. It's either really horrible or moderately successful." As for the orchestration that graces a few cuts, "We tried to keep it subliminal, yet give it a depth that the music might not have had. You had to have the basic tracks and the heart and the content. Any kind of sweetening, you do just the salt, you don't overuse it. I think that's a secret to that particular project. It was where the organic raw met the orchestrated structure, and that happened to be a good combination. It didn't come out like Muzak, because you heard the guitar and you heard the squeaks. You know, there's a few mistakes on the Wheatstraw Suite album on rhythm, that are left in. It was okay."
It was more than okay. It was a classic album, one that influenced a generation of budding country-rockers. And the Dillards would continue their successful experiments on their next Elektra album, Copperfields, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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