Dillard & Clark: Celebrating an unsung L.A. country rock classic
Before there was the Eagles, or the Flying Burrito Brothers, or Poco, there was "The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark," the 1968 country rock album created in Los Angeles by former Byrd Gene Clark and banjo player Doug Dillard.
Dillard, who died on Thursday at age 75 (read Randy Lewis' wonderful obit here), was best known for his work with the Dillards, the bluegrass band he co-founded, but to devotees of the budding Los Angeles country music scene that put the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and the Eagles, among others, on the map, Dillard will be forever linked to "The Fantastic Expedition," an unsung gem that continues to draw fans 44 years after its release.
In addition to featuring a wonderful portrait of the pair on the cover (courtesy photographer Guy Webster), the album and its nine songs -- eight originals and a Flatt & Scruggs song -- are one of the bigger bangs of Los Angeles country rock. Along with the Byrds and Dillards affiliations, core players on the album include Bernie Leadon, who would go on to co-found the Eagles, and Chris Hillman, also a former Byrd. The album was produced by Larry Marks, whose work with everyone from Phil Ochs to the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emitt Rhodes remains some of the most vital of the era.
All those links are rendered meaningless within the opening groove of the first track on "Fantastic Expedition," "Out on the Side," a floating, a Clark-penned classic featuring glorious vocal harmonies, Dillard and Clark's tangled guitar and banjo conversation, and rich, humming organ adding texture below. If you've never heard it and enjoy harmony and twang, you owe it to yourself to track it down before the day's over.
Fans of country & western, alternative country, bluegrass or any combination thereof will find much to love on the album (which, curiously, is avalable on vinyl, CD, and through streaming services, but not, from what I've been able to find, as an MP3 download). There's twang galore, but it's a smooth, casual kind, mixed within acoustic strums, loaming bass lines and stunning harmonies. The Leadon/Clark gem "Train Leaves Here This Mornin'," which closes the first side of the album, feels like it's existed forever, with a classic Nashville chord progression, a few choice solos and Clark's rich tenor.
Released by A&M Records, the album signaled the label's late '60s embracing of folk and country rock. The label, founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss and at that time located in the old Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea (now Henson Studios), had on its roster during the period Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Cat Stevens, and Procol Harum, among others. Such a volume of output didn't help the cause of "The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark," which failed to find an audience after it was released in October 1968. The pair released a follow-up, "Through the Morning, Through the Night," in 1969, which is nearly as beautiful.
That album's importance in the scene's history is equally interesting. Around the same time "Through the Morning" was recorded, three players on it -- Leadon, Chris Hillman, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow -- were getting comfortable in their new gig: working with Gram Parsons as the Flying Burrito Bros.
-- Randall Roberts