wanted: lyrics for seminal country rock band

Take Me Along for the Ride (Vanguard)
The Dillards

By Allen Howie

You can't really call the Dillards a bluegrass band. True, their instrumental lineup fits the mold, and there's a lot of inspired picking on their records. But for the past three decades, the Dillards have insisted on doing things their way, which means using traditional acoustic music as a starting point, then feeling free to borrow whatever else their eclectic musical vision requires.

Present at the birth (if not the conception) of "country rock," founding members Rodney Dillard and Dean Webb actually worked with Roger McGuinn on the Byrds' demos. The Dillards themselves ventured into the then-burgeoning folk scene, but they were too country for the protest element and too radical for country traditionalists. As a result, they've been cutting their own swath across the musical landscape ever since, picking up devotees along the way.

Their newest release, Take Me Along for the Ride, finds the Dillards' musicianship as strong as ever, with all the fire and finesse you'd expect. Sadly, though, whether written by band members or outside contributors, the material here tends to be lyrically slight, with the result that several songs seem somehow unfinished.

Stylistically, the album alternates between (and sometimes blends) traditional bluegrass, pure country and (occasionally) rock 'n' roll. Steve Cooley's guitar and banjo work is both technically impressive and musically engaging; ditto for charter Dillard Dean Webb's mandolin picking and Darren Novotny's drumming. Traditional bluegrass fans will be drawn to numbers like "Against the Grain," "Food on the Table," "Like a Hurricane" (not the Neil Young tune) and the Beatles' "In My Life." While their pleasant treatment of the latter might not break new ground, bear in mind that this is a band that was covering Beatles songs back when they were still being written. Their cover here is not a hop on any bandwagon but part of a long history of good taste.

The jangly "Someone's Throwing Stones," "Hearts Overflowing" and the Bakersfield sound of "Bed of Clover" would all sound perfectly at home on today's more accommodating country playlists, while "Move On (Life of the Common Man)," a warning against the dangers of living in the past, is nearly pure rock 'n' roll. The record's high point, though, is found on the brooding title track, which paints the life of a band onto the broader canvas of thirty years in the history of these United States, with Mark Pearman's lean, low fiddle etching somber, cello-like strokes across the landscape.

The album has its weak moments, especially "Banks of the Rouge Bayou," which begins as a tale of betrayal and murder on a dark Louisiana night, and ends abruptly in the middle of the story. And "The Great Connection" tilts perilously close to being New Age in both sentiment and execution, with spacey keyboards and a spiritual vagueness.

To the Dillards' credit, their instrumental artistry overcomes most of the lyrical drought here. Not surprisingly, the instrumental "Wide Wide Dixie Highway" is perhaps the most fully realized track, a perfect vehicle for the band's instinctive energy and craftsmanship. After taking us along for the ride these past thirty years, it's nice to know that they still have something to say.