For all those nostalgic fans of "The Andy Griffith Show" who have long clamored for a collection of the Darling boys' best, here 'tis. Well, not exactly. Actually, it's The Dillards' first two Elektra albums from 1963 and 1964, a time when they were perfecting their taciturn alter egos on TV and forcing critics and audiences to broaden their definition of "hillbilly music." With The Dillards at the top of their art as a strictly bluegrass band, this CD is likely as close as you're ever going to get to a Darling record. The pickin' and grinnin' is mighty darn good, and if you close your eyes, it's easy to imagine yourself settin' a spell in Briscoe Darling's cabin as the boys make the windows rattle.
At the time of its release, "Back Porch Bluegrass" had indignant critics, convinced nobody could play a banjo or mandolin that fast with such precision, accusing Elektra of speeding up some of the tracks. They hadn't reckoned on Douglas Dillard and Dean Webb, whose virtuosity didn't need no stinkin' studio trickery. "Hickory Hollow," in particular, sounds like the Darlings jamming after partaking of some extra potent rabbit tobacco. The album is teeming with neglected gems, like the Andy Griffith-named "Doug's Tune" (heard on the show), a wildly infectious ditty featuring some tasty interplay between banjo Wunderkind Douglas and little brother Rodney on guitar. The icing on the cake is "Duelin' Banjo," a breakneck romp for banjo and mandolin that should make anybody with ears forget that Hollywood-ized "Deliverance" stuff.
Recorded at L.A.'s Mecca club, "Live!!! Almost!!!" finds The Dillards in top-notch form and points up the importance of Mitch Jayne to the group's success. The first to admit his humble musical gifts, Jayne was a former schoolteacher and disk jockey who only learned bass in order to join the band. He proved to be a crackerjack lyricist, however, and his self-styled role as a jaunty raconteur of rustic humor lent the act extra dimension and appeal. The Mecca audience ate up Jayne's country schtick, much of it decidedly politically incorrect, with a spoon. The best bit, by far, is his set-up of "Old Blue," a routine that neatly spoofs privies, poodles and Joan Baez, at the time a sacred cow of the burgeoning folk scene. Jayne's all too willing foil in the proceedings is young Rodney, apparently playing an even broader version of his slack-jawed Darling character. (Too bad there's not a video!)
A German import (The Dillards are revered in Europe and rightly regarded there as the true daddies of country rock), the packaging is quite nice, featuring a keepsake booklet with reproductions of the original album covers and liner notes. The outer box, though, shows a photo of Rodney, Dean and Mitch with future Dillard Herb Pedersen, who "replaced" Douglas. Oops!