Calling John Dilleshaw a bandleader or guitarist doesn't seem quite enough, as fronting groups named Seven Foot Dilly & the Hot Pickles or Dilly & His Dill Pickles seems more like a sheer act of courage, unless one is playing table to table in a deli. Bear in mind, however, that this was the '20s and '30s, the eras of commercially recorded string band music, and even a group that didn't have a corn pone name would wind up acquiring one by the time the instruments were back in the cases at the end of a recording session. In this case, the group's name was based on long John's height, as he measured six-foot seven inches in his socks. As for the pickles, they were a bunch of hot hired fiddlers and a father and son playing tenor banjo and bowed bass. Combined with the leader's rocking, bluesy guitar style, it was a remarkable variation on the basic string band sound that left fans of this genre wanting to know more about this man. It is fortunate that listeners had Dilleshaw around at all, considering that he, his mother, and sister were the only survivors of a typhoid epidemic that totally decimated the population of one section of north Florida in 1912. They moved south to Hiram, where his mother taught school and Dilleshaw used what would be skilled musical hands for hunting and farming. In the span of a couple of years, trouble struck again with first the typhoid coming back to claim his sister and then Dilleshaw shooting himself in the foot in a hunting accident. This seems like a major tragedy, but it is actually on the minor scale in terms of injuries for members of string bands of this era. (For further information on this fascinating, slightly gory subject, see the entry on fiddler Lowe Stokes). In this case, it led to Dilleshaw becoming a guitarist, as a fellow up the road named Bill Turner was fond of him and took to visiting his bedside, guitar in hand. Music lessons soon followed, with the recuperating and learning songs in a neck and neck race for the most progress. One of the early songs he learned from Turner, who apparently never recorded on his own, was the instrumental "Spanish Fandango." Fans of country blues fingerpicking genius Elizabeth Cotton will recognize this number, as it is one of the songs she recalled from childhood memories when she began playing guitar again as an older woman, recording her variation several times as "Spanish Flangdang." It became one of the first Dilleshaw recordings to be commercially released. Foot fixed, he began gigging at local square dances and loosely defined parties called "entertainments" with fiddler Dave Puckett. This man was one of Dilleshaw's closest cohorts, and later, they also worked together as firemen for the Atlanta Fire Department. Old-time music fans are always raving about "burning" string bands or fiddlers who are really "on fire"; this is a rare instance of old-time musicians actually putting out blazes. Dilleshaw made his first record with Puckett, it had "Sweet Fern" on one side and "Sweet Wildwood Flower" on the other, possibly an early attempt to even the score considering the sour theme of the pickle-influenced ensembles to come. This record came out about 1925 and among old-time music collectors is considered the rarest of the rare. Dilleshaw formed another band with fiddler Lou Newman and a female banjo player who remains unidentified.
Researchers conducting interviews with elderly players has often been the only way of piecing together information on these groups, and in this case fiddler Newman was not able to recall the name of this particular banjo-picking girl.
At any rate, he was involved with Dilleshaw for three or four years, mostly playing around the county. Dilleshaw was still farming for a living, and the band was considered a sideline. In 1918, he married Opal Kiker after a courtship that sometimes involved bringing his entire band over to her front porch to provide a musical background for the wooing. It seemed to have convinced Opal and had even more of an effect on younger brother Harry Kiker, who took up fiddle, picking up tips from whoever happened to be in his brother-in-law's bands and then eventually studying more seriously with Tallapoosa fiddle master A.A. Gray. In 1925, fireman Dilleshaw hooked up with a guitar-picking carpenter from the Atlanta area named Charles Brook. They worked together as the Gibson Kings, broadcasting over WSB and of course playing Gibson guitars. They may have even been featured in one of this company's advertisements around this time. A guitar duo was a much less attractive proposition commercially than an actual string band, however, so the enterprising Dilleshaw put together the Dixie String Band with Brook, also featuring a then 17-year-old Lowe Stokes on fiddle, F.G. Dearman on mandolin, and sometimes a second fiddler, Dr. W.M. Powell. A group of this name recorded several waltzes for Columbia in 1927, but this is only a "maybe" in the column of early Dilleshaw recordings because by then the group had changed its name to Gibson Kings Dixie String Band. The leader also switched up his fiddle front line in 1926, bringing in the young, skilled Forest Mitchell, a friend from Dilleshaw's youth. Apparently, the new moniker of Dilly & His Dill Pickles was ushered in around 1927. Kiker, then 18, joined the band in its schedule of square dances and broadcasts. Recording activity really began to kick in in 1929, by which time the father and son Pink Lindsey and Shorty Lindsey had joined the band on bass and tenor banjo, respectively. Okeh released "Spanish Fandango" and "Cotton Patch Rag" under the name of John Dilleshaw & His String Marvel. He also recorded "Bad Lee Brown" for Columbia around this time, although this and another song would languish in a vault until discovered decades later. In 1930, talent scout Bill Brown was trying to find a new string band to replace the defunct Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, which up until then had been one of old-time music's most popular ensembles. What led him to believe Dilleshaw's aggregation could be the ones was not only their unusual instrumentation but the group's developing comedy skit material as well. He recorded the group substantially to the tunes of 18 titles that year, but wasn't able to get these recordings on the marketplace too much before the Depression obliterated consumer ability to collect sides. The hotshot fiddler on four of these sides was Ahaz Gray, a champion fiddle contest winner from Tallapoosa. The number "Streak A'Lean, Streak O'Fat" is particularly strange, consisting of fiddle and guitar duets with weird commentary by Dilleshaw. "A Fiddler's Try out in Georgia, Parts 1 and 2" is another masterwork from these recordings, done in the style of the Skillet Lickers' parodies of fiddle contests. Both Ahaz Gray and fiddler Joe Brown are on this record, and it was the only recording ever made of the latter man. Dilleshaw picked up extra recording work in the '30s on other sessions organized by Bill Brown, who thought highly of the bandleader's guitar playing. He even created his own studio band with Dilleshaw at the center, which he recorded in 1930. Other members of what was identified as Dilly & Big New Group were Stokes, Archie Lee, Dan Tucker, and Pops Melvin. These sides came out on Brunswick and include "Bibb County Hoedown." Recording became more and more difficult after this because of economic conditions. The old-time music industry imploded in Atlanta; the career of the Seven Foot Dilly also shriveled. Former sideman Pink Lindsey & His Bluebirds may have used Dilleshaw on guitar on their 1935 Bluebird sessions, but members of this group don't seem to be able to remember one way or the other. Through the late '30s, Dilleshaw played now and again around Atlanta, mostly on informal occasions. He died from uremic poisoning in the early '40s after a short illness. The sort of inexplicable, devastating tragedy that marked his early years continued to haunt his family, as three of his children have apparently committed suicide. ~ Eugene Chadbourne