by Carol Rumpf
edited by Caroline Wright
From bluegrass now, October 2001
Arguably the bluest eyes in bluegrass belong to a personable young man who plays banjo and sings with the prestigious band IIIrd Tyme Out. However, Steve Dilling would rather be remembered for his musicianship, and particularly for his banjo playing, than for his big blue eyes.
Steve Dilling was born on August 5, 1965 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where his dad was stationed in the Air Force. He and his older brother started playing acoustic music together in about 1977 - Steve on banjo, Scott on mandolin. The family went to festivals when the boys were growing up, and Dilling met a lot of performers as a young teenager. “I always idolized Earl Scruggs, and I also got to know J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson and others,” he reminisces.
Dilling got his first banjo for his 12th birthday. He eventually learned to play guitar, mandolin, and bass, but banjo remained the focus of his attention. He started with a few months of lessons from a fellow who played a little banjo, but after about six months he played as well as his teacher. He simply kept listening to records and some of the musicians he met at festivals, and learning from them.
His parents, Don and Linda, have always been enthusiastic fans and supporters, nurturing his early love for bluegrass and making sure he got to festivals and encouraging him to spend time with his picking friends. The elder Dillings became almost like surrogate parents to their son's friends. Tony Rice and Kim Gardner, among others, have much praise for the way the Dillings raised their son. "There was never any question in my mind," says Gardner, "that Steve was destined to play music. His father was a huge fan, and supported Steve from Day One. Anyplace Steve needed to go, Don was right there, and he still is. He's very proud, and he has every right to be."
When he was about 14, Dilling met dobroist Kim Gardner. Soon after they met, Gardner moved to the Cary, North Carolina area. "Steve's parents are great folks - they just about adopted me at that point," recalls Gardner. With other hot young musicians in the area like Wayne Benson, Greg Luck, Greg Corbett and Clay Jones, Gardner and Dilling would go to fiddle contests in the area each weekend and pick. "It was a blast, growing up together... we looked forward to March every year. You never knew who was going to be playing in a band competition together, or against each other."
Gardner regrets that there just isn't time for friends who cut their musical teeth together to reunite and pick these days. "That was something we always looked forward to, in March, when those fiddlers' competitions started up, and we could all pick together."
Like his father, Dilling is pretty much a traditionalist in his music, although in the past few years he has added a few Bela Fleck tunes to his repertoire. He admits to being a big Newgrass Revival fan for many years. He enjoys Irish-flavored tunes, especially those written by bandmate Wayne Benson and performed by IIIrd Tyme Out. Another musician who has greatly influenced Dilling is Terry Baucom. When Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver were first formed, they played around North Carolina quite a bit. At the time, Dilling had been playing a few years. He says, "I was really into that band and was seeing them play about every two or three weeks. I got to know Terry and he showed me some things on the banjo." Baucom remains a good friend to this day, and Dilling will always be grateful to him for his patience in helping a young musician learn his craft.
The first real band Dilling ever played with was Stony Run, based in the Raleigh area where he lived. They played once a month in a cafe called Déjà Vu, and they even made a recording together. All of his fellow band members, including Kim Gardner, were somewhat older than Dilling, who was still in school. This group played some festivals, mostly in the Carolinas and Georgia. In 1984 he got his first full-time picking job with Summer Wages, with which he played for about a year and recorded a couple of albums for Rebel Records. In 1985 Dilling left Summer Wages to play with the Bass Mountain Boys, who were based closer to home and worked frequent gigs. He was a Bass Mountain Boy until 1993. He also had a short stint of about six months with the Lonesome River Band.
In July 1993, Dilling was hired to play banjo with IIIrd Tyme Out. His affiliation with the award-winning, hard-working ensemble has kept Dilling quite busy, although he finds time to do a club gig every now and then with the Tony Rice Unit. For several years he has been a part of the All-Star Band at the Denton, North Carolina festival, joining musicians like Russell Moore, Ronnie Bowman, Tony Rice, and others.
Dilling says that Rice has been one of his heroes for many years. He also enjoys picking with Wayne Benson, his eminently talented bandmate, and Clay Jones, with whom he often used to play in North Carolina. Another friend from his youthful picking days, John Wade, is a proficient electric bassist who plays jazz, rock, and country; he is one of Dilling's favorite jamming pals. He also admires Tim Stafford, Barry Bales, and Adam Steffey. "Someday I'd like to play with that rhythm section - that's the A-Team, for sure," he says with enthusiasm.
In the early days of his career, Dilling never really did any singing. Now, marvels Gardner, "He is just a super harmony singer, and a good lead singer too. The amazing thing about it is how somebody can train himself to become a good singer. That's something I know he's worked at really hard."
IIIrd Tyme Out has had no personnel changes in the past several years, something of a rarity, particularly for a band that is on the road over 200 days each year. As Dilling says, "It's the kind of match that everybody has been looking for. Everybody hangs in there together and gets along good, and we all have the same goals musically. As long as I'm going to have a road gig, this is where I need to be."
Always anxious to expand his horizons, Dilling has become involved in recording production over the past several years. His first effort was for Mark Allen, a new artist he feels has great potential, on Christian Country Records. Someday when he gets off the road, Dilling hopes to do more of this type of work. The fact that IIIrd Tyme Out produces its own recordings and all band members are involved in production has, he feels, contributed greatly to his skills in this area.
Surprisingly, though he has started composing numerous tunes, Dilling has recorded only one thus far, on a Bass Mountain Boys project. He says he finds composing difficult. "It's hard to get good ideas - you don't want them to sound like other songs that are already out there." In spite of the challenge, he's committed to completing the tunes. "I'll finish them someday…" he vows firmly. Dilling teaches banjo two days a week at a music store when he's home. He is also devoted to watching professional and college sports when he can find the time, professing a love for sports that is close to his love of music.
The hardest part of Dilling's life as a road musician, especially with a band that works as much as IIIrd Tyme Out, is the many days spent away from his family. When he's not working, he tries to be involved in their activities as much as he can. He has been happily married to his wife Macie for 15 years, and they have a 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and a son, Matt, who is seven.
Dilling never learned to read music, and he never took any formal lessons. Though he plays mandolin a lot at home, the banjo remains his favorite instrument. Dilling has a 1038 RB-75 Gibson archtop which he plays on stage, and he owns a couple of others, including a new RB-75 J.D. Crowe model, and an RB-250 which he got years ago. His dad paid about $70 for his first banjo, and now Dilling is teaching young Stephanie to play that same banjo.
Ray Deaton has always admired Dilling's banjo playing. "He has a lot of fire and energy and dynamics in his playing, and is really more than just a banjo player in our band. He's a super personality - and on top of that, he's a dear friend also. Steve's just an all-around super guy - he's a big asset to our band." Deaton is also a fan of Dilling's guitar skills. "In our band, we don't restrict ourselves to just one style of music. Steve is able to do whatever it takes to make things work, playing guitar, banjo, or just singing. This is a team effort with us, and Steve is always willing to do whatever it takes to make things go well."
The team effort doesn't stop when the band leaves the stage, reports Deaton. Everybody in the band pitches in as needed for mundane chores like riding shotgun in the middle of the night and washing the bus. Dilling's sense of humor is greatly appreciated by his bandmates, and helps stave off the boredom of those long hours of travel.
Deaton makes it a point to mention the deep affection each member of the band and crew has for each other. "When the band finally retires, a long, LONG time down the road from now, I want it to retire just like it is... nobody else in the band, nobody else leaving between now and then," he comments. "The chemistry in the band, the friendship, the soul of it, and the structure, even down to our bus driver, Jack - I don't know how we could change anybody and make any improvement at all. It needs to stay just like it is."
Tony Rice met Dilling around 1983 when the Bluegrass Album Band did a tour. Dilling was a protégé of J.D. Crowe at the time, and was, by that time, a serious musician. "Every time I heard him, he got better. He played a gig with me somewhere, maybe Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his playing was incredible. Even though he's in the J. D. Crowe vein of banjo players, there's something about playing with him as part of a group that was refreshing in a way that no other banjo player of his generation had hit me. It's not anything you can put a finger on - the guy's a monster. He's got all the raw essentials of an incredible banjo player, and he gives."
For a number of reasons, Rice embraces opportunities to perform with Dilling and the other members of IIIrd Tyme Out. "We did a show together in Alabama a few years ago and that was a helluva gig, I'm telling you. It was just that band and myself playing one or two sets, and it was a incredible thing where you get together with good players and have a great time." He elaborates: "Dilling is one of the very few five-string banjo players who instinctively knows what to do behind a LEAD guitar player. You'd be surprised - not even a lot of the old timers know that because they were never faced with [having to do] it. For example, J. D. Crowe never really had to play behind Jimmy Martin playing a guitar break, because Jimmy Martin never played any of 'em. Steve just instinctively knows what to do."
Many good musicians have achieved Dilling's level of musicianship through years and years of hard work. "But some of them out there will work their whole life and never really get it," muses Rice. "Steve is one of those guys who just happens to be blessed with it. Cats like that are born with the raw essentials that it takes to make it. He's a very even player. He has hands big enough to rip the sh** out of a five-string banjo, but he doesn't. His approach is smooth, with drive, and it's very hard to execute those two elements at the same time. He's one of the few guys of his generation that can do it." Rice concludes, "If someone told me right now that I've got a gig coming up, and it's a bluegrass gig, and the banjo player is Steve Dilling, it would suit me just fine."
Recently Dilling participated in yet another venture, that of festival management. He became involved with the Amazing Grace Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina, a venture conceived by fiddle player Jon Johanssen. Dilling found himself heavily involved with festival management, and earned many words of praise for his part in this event's success, not a small achievement for a first-year festival. He also participated in John Lawless's Acutab publication of his banjo tab book, and was flattered to be asked to do this. "That was the first book to which they had added some extensive left and right hand fingering, and we did [tunes from] four CD's worth of music, and a lot of neat pictures," he says proudly. He looks forward to working on Volume Two someday.
A multi-faceted man? Most certainly Dilling leads a complex and busy life, with his fingers in many pies. But those fingers are first, and foremost, wearing picks and making music on the "five." No doubt about it, Steve Dilling will be remembered for many contributions to bluegrass music - and at the top of the list, his sparkling banjo mastery will shine as his most prestigious accomplishment.
Carol Rumpf was one of several founders of the Adirondack Bluegrass League of New York state, one of the oldest bluegrass clubs in the country. She is a retired hospital medical records coding specialist, and is Town Justice in her community when not engaged in her favorite pastime of chasing bluegrass musicians around, trying to get that ever-elusive story.
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