The Dillards

Tribute to the American Duck

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Really, it should have been "the Dillard," because banjo hotshot Doug Dillard had left the band, leaving the direction up to Rodney Dillard and holdovers from previous groupings, such as mandolinist Dean Webb. An incident in Las Vegas in the '80s involving the latter player is a good illustration of why expanding the bluegrass audience during the late '60s and early '70s might not have been such a good idea. An audience waiting for Webb to sit in and play bluegrass was horrified when the mandolinist instead launched into an extended version of the song "Cocaine." There was none of the fleet, light-fingered beauty associated with bluegrass, and it was all about thudding old-school rock vibes. And that, to a large extent, describes what happens on this record, as well as what often happened when the Dillards played to a rock audience. It wasn't really the bluegrass audience that got expanded -- the ranks of the bluegrass-playing musicians actually shrank, since the music being played bore less and less resemblance to bluegrass. Often, as in the case of that version of "Cocaine" and many of the tracks on this album, it was just out and out rock or, even worse, wimpy country-rock. It is really unfortunate, because an album dedicated to the duck, one of the greatest animals to ever waddle the earth's muck, should be better than this. Ducks Unlimited should really sue, since a color photograph of a duck is prominently featured on the front. It is an exploitation of the duck's image in order for the group to appear arty and whimsical. If "art" is defined by effort, then this album is indeed quite an artistic project for this group. Each song is like a flower arrangement in which a nice-looking tulip is twisted, turned, and buried with soils and rocks until the flower shreds beyond recognition. The tulip in this case isn't so much the traditional sound of the bluegrass band, which some reactionaries think is lost simply by adding drums. Really, drums are the least of the problems here, as Paul York is a capable player who shines in the rare instances when a bluegrass beat actually emerges. There are touches of nice playing here and there from everyone, including banjoist Billy Ray Latham, and the ensemble passages are tweaked to an impressive level. Some listeners may enjoy the way songs evolve into harmonies that sound more like the Beatles than the Monroe Brothers. It is the songwriting and arrangements that cover the joy of old-time music with a smothering layer of rock and pop influence, and what is really dangerous is that this is referencing the music of the '70s, a time when artificially "down-home" and "funky" foot soldiers were limping through the work of artists such as J.J. Cale, Elton John, the Average White Band, and so on. To hint that these are the influences that take over on this record is a polite way of waving a large red flag. Perhaps the bird of the title is part of a pun, and it is the listener who should "duck" when this particular album flies by.

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