Ronnie Ellis

Ronnie Ellis

FRANKFORT – I’ve previously written in this column about my friend, Mitchell F. Jayne, the most unique personality I ever encountered.

Mitch was an incredible storyteller, novelist, songwriter and bass player for The Dillards, the trailblazing folk-bluegrass group better known to some as The Darling Boys on the Andy Griffith Show.

Mitch had a love affair with the Fourth of July, and considered it a cosmic affront that he was born an hour after midnight on July 5. So he did what Mitch did – he made up his own story, claiming and celebrating July 4th as his birthday.

Mitch died six years ago next month, having lived a wondrous adventure for 82 years that took him from teaching in a one-room school near Salem, Missouri, to a mythical place of his own making, Hickory Holler on “a little 100-watt radio station” in Salem, to Hollywood and around the globe regaling Dillards fans with side-splitting stories of characters he and Rodney Dillard wrote into songs like “Dooley” and “Ebo Walker.”

Typical of Mitch, he timed his second and final retirement from The Dillards with their appearance with Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall. I mean, how could you top that, right?

He published three novels, wrote for Dick Clark and worked for a time for NBC where he insisted the nameplate on his office door read Ob Schunk, one of the real-life names and characters he collected over 82 years.

I miss him all the time – in spite of the fact that I would go for years sometimes without actually seeing Mitch after he retired from The Dillards to Eminence, Mo. We kept up through letters and emails. Phones wouldn’t do as Mitch became, in his words, “deafer’n a snake!”

I often think of him around July 4.

One of Mitch’s routines on the little Salem radio station in the late 1950s was an annual July 4 skit with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson coming to blows after an argument over trading 'coon dogs.

He’d tell stories of Dooley, the moonshiner with two “big old mammoth girls” for daughters who minded the still (“one gal watched the boiler, the other watched the spout, while Mama corked the bottles, and ole Dooley fetched them out.”)

Ebo was another mythical moonshiner whose Ozark clients were an otherwise morally upright (well, when sober) lot; they only used ‘shine to cure snakebite. So Ebo always carried a snake – old, worn out and toothless but at the ready to supply the buyer with the need in a pinch.

An airline pilot by chance picked up the radio waves of Hickory Holler, becoming such a fan that he looked for the signal on every flight and began playing the broadcast into the passenger compartment.

Years later shortly after Mitch, Rodney and Doug Dillard and Dean Webb arrived in Los Angeles looking for a recording career, one of those passengers, a fellow named Dick Clark, called Mitch and hired him.

I learned a lot about what’s important over 30 years of friendship with Mitch. Even in death, Mitch provided perspective.

The day after he died, I called Dean – my best friend through whom I came to know Mitch and The Dillards – to mourn. Dean’s a pretty philosophical sort himself and he chastised me for my excessive gloom.

“For 82 years he lived by only his rules. I knew the man for more than 50 years and in all that time I never knew him to be on time, turn down a cigarette or take a drink of water. We should all be so lucky.”

Yes, I was so lucky to know Mitch.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.