As a musician I’ve had many favorite bands and musical influences. Even before I could play an instrument, I was drawn to numerous different artists. One of them was a group of men from Missouri called The Dillards, whom my Dad introduced me to when I was only five years old. I still to this day can’t put my finger on exactly what made them grab my attention at such a young age, but they were one of those bands I constantly listened to. For those who aren’t sure who the Dillards are, you might remember a hillbilly family on The Andy Griffith Show called The Darlings. The family patriarch, Briscoe Darling was played by Denver Pyle, the sweet young sister, Charlene Darling played by Maggie Peterson and the four quiet musical brothers were played by none other than The Dillards. The show of course would become one of the most iconic shows in television history. Through the different appearances the Dillards made on the show as the Darling boys, they introduced millions of homes to the sounds of Bluegrass music. There are many stories out there of people learning to play this music because of seeing Doug and his brother Rodney Dillard, along with Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne on an episode of the show.
My introduction to the Dillards was through a compilation disc my Dad owned called “There Is A Time.” It covered the beginning of their career in the early ’60s to the mid ’70s when the group started to experiment a little bit more with their sound. As a kid I often listened to the first half of the disc more than the second, since it contained mostly straight ahead bluegrass. It would be regularly played in my portable Walkman CD player on just about every family vacation we went on. Little did I know that their music would have a much deeper and larger influence on me several years later.
After I got my first mandolin at the age of fifteen, I started seriously listening to different mandolin players such as Bill Monroe and Doyle Lawson. One Sunday afternoon, I disctintly remember walking into my living room and my step-dad had an episode of The Andy Griffith Show on that featured none other than The Darling Family. I of course sat down and watched it with him. A few moments later they launched into “Salty Dog Blues.” When Dean Webb began to play his mandolin solo, I was absolutely mesmorized. His style sounded completely different from anything else I had ever heard before. I would describe his sound as intense, gritty, and rough around the edges. I became very attracted to what he was doing and just had to figure out how to do it myself.
I began absorbing myself in different recordings of The Dillards to try to analyze how Dean was doing what he did. I attempted to do some research on the internet to see if anyone had talked about his style, but there really wasn’t anything out there that helpful. I then started watching clips of Dean on YouTube and through that I took note of how he held his picking hand (that would be his right hand, in my case it would be my left), what parts of the mandolin neck he would typically reach to play certain notes, and how he kept rhythm behind the other players. I tried everything I could to recreate all the nuances of his style. It was through trial and error I realized that no one could do exactly what another person did and at the end of the day, you just need to go and create your own style based on different elements you learned from others.
In 2014, I was on my way to Camp Barnabas in Purdy, MO. My family and I would typically stay in Branson the night before heading off to Camp. My mother happened to find out that a local Bluegrass band would be playing at a nearby restaurant in town. When I saw the poster advertising “Missouri Boatride Bluegrass Band featuring Dean Webb,” I insisted we had to go. When we got there, we quickly realized that they would be performing on a flatbed truck in the parking lot, very reminiscent of the truck that Briscoe, Charlene and the Darling boys would be arriving in Mayberry with. I distinctly remember the band getting on this truck and playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for their sound check. I remember getting goosebumps all over my arm when Dean began to play. It was that same tone that I had heard on all those Dillards recordings. It was the sound that fascinated me and caused me to drive myself insane trying to figure it out. Shortly after that, Dean stepped off stage and I nervously walked over to him with my step-dad, David to say hello. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I made sure he knew just how much his playing meant to me. He was incredibly gracious to me and pretty soon we were talking all the geeky stuff that musicians typically talk about when they get together such as string brands, picks, etc. Several minutes later, I was back in my wheelchair and the band had started their show. The music of course was great and Dean literally nailed every solo he played. When it came time for intermission, I was walking around and happened to run into the group’s guitar player, Justin Sifford. What happened next is something I’ve never been able to adequately write about myself, so I’ll let you read a Facebook post that Justin made about it shortly later. I think he tells the next part of this story perfectly.
“Had one of those “Wow” moments at our show last night. During intermission I met a young man in a wheel chair and a Station Inn t-shirt. I asked him if he liked bluegrass music. He said yes sir, in fact Dean Webb is one of my biggest influences. I love the Dillards! Being the ignorant oaf I am sometimes, I assumed he must mean he’s just a fan and didn’t actually play. Was I ever wrong. We got him to Dean and during the conversation we learned that the young man did in fact play the mandolin. Unfortunately he did not have his mandolin with him as they were visiting the area. What happened next I will never forget. Dean offered the young man his mandolin. His eyes lit up, and a smile as big as Missouri came across his face. He said I love to if it’s OK with you. Dean obliged, and we brought the young man up in our second set. None of us knew what to expect next, but after the first few licks we knew the kid could play. He did Sally Goodin’ and then Lonesome Indian which was on one of the Dillards records that the boy listened to growing up. Of course at the end of the song everyone was on their feet and a few tears including myself.”
That by far was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my entire musical life. I don’t know what made me more nervous, the fact that I had a big crowd listening to me, or that one of my biggest heroes was standing just a few feet away from me listening to me play a couple of tunes (one of which he recorded in 1963) on his personal instrument. Needless to say, Dean was very complimentary of my playing. He even said that he really loved the tone I got out of the mandolin, a comment that made me feel ten feet tall! I left that night on cloud nine.
Over the course of the next few years I was able to keep up with Dean through his wife, Sandy on Facebook. It was my hope that I would one day get to hear him play again or maybe pick a few tunes with him. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be. Dean Webb passed away on June 30 at the age of 81. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to express to him just how much of an influence he had on me as a young musician and also that he left a body of recorded work for generations to learn from just as I did seven years ago. Rest in peace Dean. We will never forget you.