An appreciation: Doug Dillard was 'my mentor,' John McEuen says
John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Southern California-based Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped forge an early bridge in the 1970s between the then-distinct worlds of rock and country music with the group’s 1972 triple-record set, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” McEuen had a profound interest in traditional country and folk music and found inspiration watching L.A.-area appearances by the Dillards, and banjo player Doug Dillard played a key role in McEuen’s musical education. Here is what McEuen wrote about Dillard after he died last week in Nashville at age 75 after a long illness.
“Douglas Flint Dillard -- my mentor. He is the person who showed me that music was exciting and fun to play onstage for people; the one who was 'impickable' with the execution of his art. Douglas Flint Dillard, whose grin would hit the back of the wall from any stage he was on, has passed away.
“There were many times, after I became a 'hanger on' at 17 years old, that the Dillards allowed me to hang out in their dressing room as they tuned up to go on for yet another sold-out L.A. club show. I would sit there, pretending to read a book, but listen as intently as a hawk watches, trying to pick up new nuances of notes. Often, on the way to the stage, Douglas would turn to me and play an incredible previously unheard lick to impress me, and I would ask where it came from. He'd mention another player he was emulating at that moment, and tell me to check them out, which I did. Then, he’d turn back around, walk onstage and play his own style that kept me mesmerized.
“I went to see them so often, sometimes two to three times a week when they did the L.A. club circuit (usually a week at each place, and there were eight of them), that my mother told me after that first year or two that I should change my last name to Dillard. The fire to be a musical performer had been ignited. As you can imagine, changing my college major from math to banjo was an easy decision that came along with that.
“The Dillards’ albums took me out of Orange County on roads that led to starting a band. Their appearances on 'The Andy Griffith Show' (Mayberry) as the Darling Family were anxiously awaited by all, and Douglas’ session playing on many soundtracks and hits brought the banjo to even more people. Later, he ventured into country-rock, which helped set the tone for that emerging form of SoCal music that I was a part of. The many accolades that Douglas received were always high praise, especially for his friendly, human qualities.
“One night at an after show picking party at a club owner's house, Doug broke a string on his banjo. I always brought mine along, but never played in front of him. I spent many hours studying his attack, strings, setup of his instrument, method of playing, stance and tone, all in vain to try to make mine sound like his. My banjo just did not sound like his. I offered him the use of mine while I changed the string. He started playing it, and it sounded just like his. That is when I learned that, 'it's the archer, not the bow.'
“I am grateful to have been able to call Dillard a friend. There would not have been a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with me in it if it had not been for Doug. Consequently, there would not have been a ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album if not for him. Thank you, Douglas, for what you did for me.”
-- John McEuen
May 21, 2012
Top photo of John McEuen with bluegrass banjo great Earl Scruggs in 1972 during the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Courtesy of William E. McEuen.
Second photo of Doug Dillard. Credit: A&M Records.