Forgotten Classics: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark

Mention Dillard & Clark to most music aficionados and the best reaction you will probably get might just be a quizzical “huh?” and a slightly raised eyebrow. However, go on to tell your friend that the band contained members of The Byrds, The Eagles and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and then you might just get a far more enquiring, “Ooh”?

You can then mention that Dillard & Clark’s first album pre-dated the seminal American country rock albums “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band and The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”. And then throw in the fact that two of the duos songs appeared on Robert Plant and Alison Klauss’s hugely successful album “Raising Sand”. Now you may have the full attention of your music expert chums.

The “Clark” of the duo, Gene Clark, had a musical pedigree that was generally better known than that of his banjo playing partner, Doug Dillard. Coming from a background of American folk, Clark’s young career took a sharp diversion when he discovered The Beatles. This discovery prompted Clark to move to Los Angeles in 1964 where he met another Beatle infatuated former folkie in the form of Roger McGuinn. Together they went on to form the now iconic Sixties band, The Byrds.

Clark went on to write many of The Byrd’s most well loved early songs, including “I Feel A Whole Lot Better” and “Eight Miles High”. However, after two years of huge success, Clark became disenchanted with The Byrds. Not only did he feel that his own (not inconsiderable) vocal talents were being ignored, as McGuinn sang all of Clark’s self-penned material, but the rest of band where also becoming increasingly irked by Clark’s large royalty cheques. Clark’s departure after such a relatively short amount time would prove to be a dominant feature of much of his work after The Byrds.

Meanwhile, in a post-colonial, post-Kennedy, mid-Vietnam America, inward looking and self analytical, a California-centric spark of renewed interest in American folk was being kindled. And it was within this cauldron of renewal and revival that Clarke recorded his first solo album. Simply called “Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers”, it received some notice, but little success. This was due in no small part to the fact that Clark’s erstwhile band members had chosen to release their own hugely successful “Younger Than Yesterday” in the exact same week.

“Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers” turned out to be a muddy affair anyway, with tracks sounding, in turn, like poor “Rubber Soul” copies or Byrd out-takes. However, the album did serve to bring together much of the bluegrass talent in Los Angeles at that time, including the multi-instrumentalist Gosdin Brothers, to produce an album that many consider the precursor to all American folk rock, despite the fact that it really only contained two proper bluegrass tracks.

It was during the recording of the “Gosdin Brothers” album that Clark struck up a friendship with banjo virtuoso, Doug Dillard. Dillard had also had his own measure of success, albeit a curious one – he had been banjo player with a bluegrass group called The Dillards, whose dubious claim to fame had been to portray in-house band, The Darlings, every week in The Andy Griffiths Show. Although their jug blowing, hay seed sucking portrayal in the show would be considered demeaning by modern standards, their regular appearances did have an interesting side effect – they introduced the American people to a genre of music of which many were largely unaware, and ultimately proved to be highly influential on the burgeoning California American folk scene.

In 1968, with one solo album (and a unsuccessful three week Byrd reunion) under his belt, Clark began work on his first collaborative effort with Dillard. (Interestingly enough, Dillard himself had also just spent a stint touring with the Byrds.) The sound they would go on created would prove to be far more mature and confident than Clark’s first outing.

The album, “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark”, had grown out of a series of informal jams between the pair. By the time they hit the studio, Dillard, Clark, and several other Californian bluegrass notables (along with fellow Byrds Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman, and future Eagle Bernie Leadon) had honed their music into a tight, fresh, joyful and honest sound.

The songs were mostly written by Clark in collaboration with Dillard, Leadon, or both, and feature what is undoubtedly the finest singing of Clark’s career. Dillard’s banjo is frantic, energetic and expertly played, displayed prominently, but never dominantly throughout the album, as is the beautiful multi-part harmonies. The recordings themselves are wonderfully clear, using the newer transistor technology over the more muffled valve sound of the previous album, and forsaking traditional American recording technique of smothering everything with reverb à la Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. However, it is the songs that really shine here.

Deliciously dark, lovelorn and honest, the album opens with the beautiful figuring of Hammond organ player, Andy Beling on “Out on the Side”. This track, detailing love as it “walks out the door”, is followed immediately by the equally haunting “She Darked the Sun”.

She was there on that night
Said ‘For you I know I’m right.
‘I’ll be with you until my race is run.’
She walked into my life
With her cold evil eyes
And with the length of her mind she darked the sun.

Maudlin certainly, but one is also left with an overt sense of joy – that, given the choice, Clark would go through all the pain again for that love. Later covered by Linda Ronstandt, “She Darked The Sun” is one of the strongest songs of Clark’s entire catalogue, period.

Progressive bluegrass track “Don’t Come Rollin’” is the next track on the album, and features Clark’s considerable harmonica skills admirably. “Train Leaves Here This Morning” (later covered by The Eagles) then follows, a lovely plaintive song detailing the hero’s journey out of town for “being in the right place, at exactly the wrong time.” The next track, the ebullient and frantic “With Care From Someone” then explodes to the fore, featuring the sort of energetic banjo and double bass playing that will have anyone searching frantically for the nearest shit to kick.

The rest of the finely honed songs on the album are similarly divided between the upbeat and lovelorn. However, the album closes with a real eye opener – a song, advanced for its years, detailing the effects of environmental catastrphe, that observes:

Now something’s wrong
Where the Sherwood used to be
Neon brambles now I can see.

The CD re-release of the album also contained a couple of genuine nuggets, including a neat rockabilly/bluegrass take on Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”, and the winner of the “How On Earth Did This Get Left Off The Album” award, the Clark penned “Why Not Your Baby”.

Dillard & Clark went on to record one more album before Clark’s rather predictable departure. Released in 1969, and called “Through The Morning, Through The Night”, it was a more disappointing affair than their previous effort, consisting mainly of workmanlike covers. While lacking the passion and energy of “The Fantastic Expedition”, the album did containing some wonderful Clark originals, including “I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy”, and two songs that would later feature in Plant & Krauss’s “Raising Sand album”; the title song and “Polly (Come Home)”.

Although not as well known as many of the Country-rock albums that followed, “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark” was highly influential. The Flying Burrito Brothers, though less lyrically skilled, and certainly not as innovative, brought Country-rock more to the fore, with former Dillard & Clark members Leadon, Hillman and Clarke figuring prominently in early line-ups. Certainly Chris Hillman insists that Dillard & Clark were far more innovative and influential than the Flying Burrito Brothers, and also insists Clark was a far better songwriter than the Burrito’s Gram Parsons. Ultimately however, Dillard & Clark’s most important contribution to the genre was to open the doors to what would become commercially acceptable by the mid 70s, with the Eagles and those who followed.

Most importantly, time has been far kinder to this album than it has been to most of the genre’s other founding works. The album sounds as fresh today as it did forty years ago. And, as an album that is both seminal, and so lyrical and musical, it is also one of the great under-appreciated masterpieces of American music.

Forget the fact that Country-rock may not be your thing. If you like music, then this is simply one of the most joyous and accomplished examinations of music and musicianship going, full stop. Buy it, and you will make a friend for life.


(This article was originally published in the April 2012 edition of The Wexfordian, and is posted with kind permission.)

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