Death proved to be the only thing that could keep Doug Dillard from attending Mayberry Days, but a special tribute on Friday showed his memory remains vivid among both his musician friends and bluegrass fans.
A pair of concerts featuring Dean Webb, who along with Dillard was part of the Darling family appearing in episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” honored the legendary banjo picker who died in May at age 75.
Dillard held the distinction of performing every year at Mayberry Days since the event began in 1990, spearheading sold-out shows in the Andy Griffith Playhouse along the way.
The bluegrass music again made its return to that venue for the two concerts on Friday — and despite Dillard’s absence, Webb and others made it known that he was not forgotten.
“It’s like somebody hit me right in the pit of my stomach,” vocalist/guitarist Ginger Boatwright said between sets when describing to a reporter her pain in not having Dillard alongside on the playhouse stage where they performed together many times.
“It’s really bad,” added an emotional Boatwright, who lives part-time in both Alaska and her native Alabama. She has missed only one year of Mayberry Days.
And while the show did go on Friday, Doug Dillard never seemed far from the minds of a seven-piece group that had the audience tapping toes, clapping and hollering for much of the time with many bluegrass favorites.
In addition to Webb and Boatwright, it included LeRoy McNees, a dobro player who also appeared as a musician in an early episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” called “Mayberry on Record.”
Others were local fiddler Jim Vipperman, bassist Buddy Griffin, guitarist Roger Rasnick and Richard Bailey, who played the banjo as Dillard would, had he been able to attend the 23rd-annual Mayberry Days.
A special moment emerged when Maggie Peterson Mancuso (better known as Charlene Darling) lent her vocal talents to two songs the Dillards played on the 1960s TV show in their role as the Darlings. She and her brother characters formed a musically talented hillbilly family who paid visits to Mayberry from time to time, led by patriarch Briscoe Darling.
“We’re going to do one that makes me cry,” Mancuso said, repeating a familiar line from those black-and-white episodes before she and the others launched into a spirited rendition of “Salty Dog Blues.”
After that, the group performed a slower, but equally remembered song from a scene in Andy Taylor’s living room, “There is a Time.” Written by The Dillards, it drew an appreciative response from the audience.
Boatwright pointed out that Webb and the late Mitch Jayne, another original member of that group, penned the majority of its songs.
Webb, now 75, said during a break at Friday’s first show that he never imagined “The Andy Griffith Show” — and the accompanying music of the Darlings/Dillards — would still be so popular 50 years later.
“There’s no way to know that kind of thing,” said Webb, a Missouri resident, calling the program’s staying power “fantastic.”
“It’s a real neat thing to have been a part of,” Webb added of his time on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
While they were onstage, Boatwright also had Webb recall a notable scene in one of the episodes in which Andy and Barney visited the Darlings at their mountain cabin. It involved the brothers in bed together and snoring in unison.
“We couldn’t hardly control ourselves to get through that thing,” Webb said in remembering how they had to film take after take because the crew and other cast members were laughing so hard.
The producer grew upset and ordered everyone to be quiet and get the next take right — but then he starting laughing, too, and finally just called for a lunch break.
That was an unusual scene for The Dillards, Webb said. They were mostly counted on for musical relief, and to provide what he called a “vacuous look,” which he did again Friday for old-time’s sake.
However, much of Friday’s musical tribute paid homage to the man no longer there because of a lung ailment that limited Doug Dillard’s appearances during his last days. The 2011 Mayberry Days is believed to have been his last time performing publicly.
He was specifically remembered with several songs, including one called “Doug’s Tune,” in which fellow banjo picker Bailey took the lead.
The set list also included “Somebody’s Missing You,” which Boatwright wrote for Dillard. Friday marked the first time she sang it since his death.
Its forlorn theme includes the lines “Somebody’s heart is breaking in two; somebody’s missing you.”
“I kind of messed up on the lyrics,” Boatwright, the lead vocalist, said after performing it during Friday’s first show.
“I got a little emotional on that.”
But the audience didn’t seem to notice that slip-up, and were appreciative of the mixture of humor and thoughtful reflection the concert provided overall.
“I love it — we came last year when Doug was here,” said one fan, Jimmy Hale, who journeyed to Mount Airy from his home in the Fairy Stone section of Patrick County, Va., along with his wife Rose. He said they “loved Doug.”
Charles Owens, part of a bus tour group attending Mayberry Days from Bristol, Va., said he thought Friday’s tribute was a “very good” way to honor Dillard’s memory.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.