January-February 2011

RIP Mitch Jayne

By Dennis Roger Reed

  The term “Renaissance Man” is not often used for individuals who make their living playing bluegrass music. In fact, write this down: it may be the very first time the term has been applied in this context. But it suits Mitchell Jayne, the bass player, emcee and raconteur that helped make The Dillards one of the iconic bluegrass bands. In this case, this Renaissance man was defined as a teacher, musician, songwriter, prose writer, novelist, newspaper columnist and storyteller par excellence.

Mitch Jayne was born in Indiana on July 5, 1930, or July 5, 1928, and passed away on August 2, 2010 in Colombia MO, a state Mitch insisted is spelled and pronounced Missoura. Mitch took language very seriously, and he took the Missoura Ozarks very seriously. He served as a tail gunner in World War II, and later studied to become a teacher at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He taught for a couple of years in a one-room school in Horse Creek, Missouri. He was immediately taken by the rich vocabulary of his students. He theorized that the Ozark population had held old English as a big part of their native tongue, and was mesmerized by the sometimes Shakespearian utterances of his young charges. The word “the” was pronounced “thee” not “tha.” Nouns were used as verbs, and words historically hundreds of years old might crop up in a youngster’s chatting. Often these utterances could be traced back to Elizabethan English. Folks “beguiled away the time,” hurried home to avoid facing a mother who did not “sanction us being dilatory.” Jayne’s book from 2000, Home Grown Stories & Home Fried Lies, brought this heritage language to the world. Jayne often lamented that the loss of the one room schools, along with television and radio, had diluted this rich heritage, and hastened the demise not only of the “language,” but the colorful sayings that peppered Ozarkian speech. Jayne once commented to someone who asked about food on the road during touring "Some eats boughten vittles, but I always take a bait of dinner in a poke." In other words, some dined at restaurants, but Mitch preferred to bring a sack lunch. Got it?

Sometime in the late 1950s, Jayne made the acquaintance of two brothers from Salem, MO, Rodney and Doug Dillard. Rodney played guitar and sang, Doug played the banjo, and along with their friend Dean Webb on mandolin, played bluegrass music as The Dillards. They convinced the older, more settled Jayne to join them on a trip to California in 1963 to make it big. Legend has it that Jayne learned to play the upright bass on the trip by laying down in the back of Webb’s Cadillac. Their very first stop was the Ash Grove on Melrose in Los Angeles, where they took in a show with the Greenbriar Boys, and then grabbed their instruments and played in the lobby during the intermission. Rather than being thrown out, owner Ed Pearl ended up hiring them, and they soon signed with Electra Records. They recorded their first LP, Back Porch Bluegrass in 1963, followed in 1964 with Live!!! Almost!!! Then they were hired to act on the Andy Griffith Show, where they became reoccurring cast members as the Darlings, the slack jawed always silent sons of irascible Briscoe Darling, a mountain man played by Denver Pyle. The show gave the boys a national audience.

Jayne authored or provided lyrics for many of the Dillard’s standards including The Old Home Place, Dooley, The Whole World Round, and There Is A Time. Doug Dillard left the band in the late 1960s to tour with the Byrds and to start a group with former Byrd Gene Clark. The Dillards replaced Doug with banjo player/singer Herb Pederson, and recorded two great LPs, Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. These early incarnations of the band provided a major and often overlooked influence to California’s burgeoning folk rock sound. The Pederson era Dillards even opened for Elton John on his first US tour.

Jayne’s involvement with the Dillards began to lessen in the late 1970s, though he took part in several reunion tours and recordings almost until his death. He moved back to Missoura, and became much more involved as an author, journalist and radio disk jockey. His dry wit that had make him an ideal emcee for the Dillards served him well in his writings.

Jayne wrote books such as The Forest in the Wind in 1966, and Old Fish Hawk in 1973. The latter was made into a movie starring Native American actor Will Sampson in 1979. He hosted a radio show in Salem, and expanded on his Dillards’ humor with the “Dent County Tick and Snake Market Report.” His homespun humor cast him as a hillbilly Will Rogers.

He had a weekly newspaper column, Driftwood, which appeared in several Missouri newspapers. For 20 years, he wrote for Today’s Farmer Magazine, and was a regular contributor to the Missouri Conservationist. He even lectured on conservation, making the point that we not only need to cherish our natural resources, but our cultural and historic resources. And recognition, though slow in arriving, did finally result. The Dillards reunited to play Carnegie Hall in 2002. The Dillards were inducted into the International Bluegrass Musicians Association Hall of Fame in 2009, leading to a loud chorus of “FINALLY” from their myriad of fans.

His final novel, Fiddler’s Ghost, garnered the 2008 Missoura Governors Humanities Book Award, the first time this was awarded to a work of literary fiction, and was named one of top ten books of the year by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Mitchell Jayne contributed much to the culture of bluegrass music and Ozarkian culture. He will be sorely missed.

Buy some CDs. They’re beginning to look like Edsels, but are easier to tore. Go out to enjoy live music, tip the serving staff AND the musicians. Stay healthy, and say hi to your mom for me.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed