Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE DILLARDS: Wheatstraw Suite

The Dillards - Wheatstraw Suite
Having made a name for themselves with guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, The Dillards, known primarily as a bluegrass group, released this half-hour opus in 1968. While bluegrass is the key ingredient in Wheatstraw Suite, the record is augmented with Byrds-style folk-rock and Nashville country music. Every song is breezy and short, with not a wasted note in sight. The songs are a mix of covers and originals, but they all fit cohesively with each other without sounding identical. A few of them feature orchestral arrangements, but low in the mix, just adding a touch of depth while leaving room for the dobro, mandolin, pedal steel and Herb Pedersen’s rollicking banjo, which is the most ear-catching thing going on in many of these songs, (particularly the rolling and tumbling instrumental “Bend the Strings”.)

Pedersen, who sings lead vocals on five of the thirteen songs included here, replaced Doug Dillard, who left the group shortly before the recording of this album (he went on to be the “Dillard” in
Dillard and Clark). When Pedersen isn’t singing lead in his broad country tenor, Rodney Dillard takes over with his lithe, reedy voice, turning in a particularly affecting performance on “Lemon Chimes”. Both singers are great, and even better when the whole group is harmonizing, as on their cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” or The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, (which is a great choice for this group, since it was practically a bluegrass tune to begin with).

While there isn’t a weak song in the bunch, it’s a good thing they saved “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” for last, because I don’t think any song would want to be the song that has to follow something so beautiful and heart-breaking. Written by Jesse Kincaid, it’s a gentle waltz about a sad and strange woman and her lonely death. The Dillards allow it to build from verse to verse, adding more layers of sound as they do, wringing an unbelievable amount of emotion from such a simple song, never resorting to histrionic melodrama. These lyrics are particularly affecting, though it would hard to explain why:

She lived in a sorcerer’s room
she pounded the table and brandished a broom
she turned 10,000 when she touched the moon

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