This week will make 17 times LeRoy Mack McNees has come to Mayberry Days, starting in 2001 and only missing one since then. But he said that’s not a record or anything.
“Doug Dillard had been to every one when he passed away,” said McNees, who worked primarily under the name LeRoy Mack in the entertainment business.
He appeared with his band The Country Boys on two episodes during the first season of “The Andy Griffith Show.” The first of those, in February 1961, was the first appearance of a bluegrass band on national television, according to McNees.
“Our understanding was that they had a script that called for a band to back Andy up,” said McNees. “I’m not quite clear if Andy had heard us on the radio, or if he had gone to one of the local guys booking acts, but they did call us.”
McNees said his band was asked if they would audition for “The Andy Griffith Show,” and they did it immediately.
“We played a couple of songs, and Andy said he wanted us,” as McNees remembers.
McNees said he’d never done anything like that before. He’d only been playing music for three years, and all of the band members had day jobs.
As a teenager living in Southern California in the late ’50s and early ’60s, McNees ws unfamiliar with bluegrass music. He heard it on the radio and wanted to hear some more, so he went down to where the Country Boys were doing a live broadcast. They let him come to their house and practice with them, strumming along on his guitar.
The band told him to get a Dobro guitar, and he could play with the band. So he did. McNees described a Dobro as a forerunner of the steel guitar, which is played with a steel bar.
McNees said the band most likely got the gig because they were the only band playing that kind of music in Los Angeles at the time.
“The Dillards came after us, but they did more episodes.” He said the Dillards saw his band playing on the show while they were still in Missouri, came out to California and got booked on the show.
Though bluegrass was not yet popular in the area, McNees said the folk scene was big, and the Country Boys played at popular folk hotspot, The Ash Grove, and were the first bluegrass band to do so.
“We opened it up for bluegrass in folk clubs,” he said, adding with pride, “Jerry Garcia was one of our groupies. He played bluegrass for awhile.”
Years later, when McNees’ son was 16, he said the Grateful Dead was in town for a concert and Garcia came by and re-introduced himself to McNees, and they chatted.
“My son couldn’t believe it,” he said.
The Country Boys were later known as The Kentucky Colonels, and one of the members, Clarence White, also played for The Byrds and developed a guitar style that is still copied today, according to McNees.
McNees left the band in 1964 and went to work for his father, but he still played on the side, co-founding the gospel group, Born Again Bluegrass Band.
“It wasn’t a full-time gig,” said McNees. “We were working as well as playing. It was more of a ministry for us.”
McNees played with the band for 31 years, making 12 albums. When Steve Hatfield died about 15 years ago, the remaining band members dissolved the band.
In 2004, McNees sold the business he had started 21 years earlier and went out on the road for 10 years. He and his wife leased their house out and took off full time on the road.
“We were making albums and CDs and coming to Mayberry Days,” he said.
His wife, Janice McNees, has also become a Mayberry Days fixture, appearing as the Pickle Queen for the past 10 years.
McNees laughs, saying that in a Wall Street Journal article about Mayberry Days, a photo of his wife in her green Pickle Queen outfit carrying a bouquet of pickles got all the attention, scooping it away from the actual Mayberry stars.
Until McNees was invited to come to Mayberry Days for the first time, he said he rarely thought of the work he did on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and if he did, he thought of it as ancient history. That changed when he got to Mount Airy.
“I was blown away because of the amount of people who showed up, and they were all incredibly interested in everything.” McNees marveled at the depth of knowledge exhibited at the Mayberry trivia contest.
“It’s so different from anything on TV today. It was a simpler time, with good guys who do good things, and there was always a strong moral component to the story.”
McNees will be performing Friday at the Andy Griffith Museum Theatre. His 4 p.m. show “LeRoy Mack McNees & Friends – Bluegrass Mayberry Style” will feature local group Mickey Galyean and Cullen’s Bridge. The Lowgap group played with McNees last year, and he’s excited to be playing with them again.
The show sold out last year, and McNees expects it to sell out again.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.