How the Seldom Scene Remains a Renewable Resource
We first saw the fabled Seldom Scene at a concert at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts, one cold winter day in 2010 and immediately fell in love with them. Later that year, during their appearance at Strawberry Park, a well-known festival in Connecticut, we saw them again. A woman my wife and I have known since our early days in bluegrass commented, “This isn’t the real Seldom Scene, you should have seen them with Duffey.” This plaint is common in bluegrass, as a person’s impression of a band and affection for it imprint themselves on their consciousness, and they adopt them as their own. Thus, the version of the Seldom Scene we first saw became what we think of as “our” Scene. Over the years, Seldom Scene has had 14 different “regular” players, maintaining continuity amid all the change because of the consistency of the band’s major voices during the most recent last two decades, with Dudley Connell, Lou Reid, and Fred Travers.
The Seldom Scene was founded in 1971 in banjo player Ben Eldridge’s Bethesda, Maryland, basement as a jam, governed originally by these principles, enunciated by bass player Tom Gray, who told the Washington Post: “We would only play one night a week, festivals on the weekends, and would only record when we were ready. We would not tour, we would not have a band vehicle. It worked well for those of us who had to keep our day jobs.” Gray, who had also been a member of the Country Gentlemen, along with John Duffey, forged a new style for bluegrass bass, adding a musical virtuosity to the solid bass beat required of all bass players and contributing new approaches to playing the instrument.
Ben Eldridge is a mathematician who plays banjo while continuing to work at his profession throughout his career, including for the U.S. Navy. He retired from the Seldom Scene in 2015, when the extensive travel now required by the band proved to be too much of a challenge. His performance on “Lay Down Sally” was always a crowd favorite, as was he.
By profession a graphic designer for the Washington Star, Mike Auldridge, who died in 2012, was recognized as one of the most important innovators on the quirky Dobro, an instrument invented in 1928 by the Dopyera brothers as a variation of the resonator guitar. The name was later bought and trademarked by Gibson. In Auldridge’s obituary in the Washington Post, Dobro great Jerry Douglas said, “He was the first guy to use the Dobro in a more modern way, to phrase it more like a saxophone or some other instrument.” Howard Parker, a former student of Auldridge’s as well as being associated with Beard Guitars, who sponsored Auldridge for years, suggested this clip of “Wait a Minute,” which also features John Starling’s vocal and a touch of Duffey’s personality. “Thought by some to be the best Dobro intro ever conceived,” Howard commented.
John Starling, M.D., was an ear, nose, and throat specialist who was the guitarist and lead singer in the original Seldom Scene, as well as the first to leave the band (1977) after finishing his medical residency at Walter Reed Hospital in order to begin private practice in Alabama. When Starling retired from medicine he formed a band called John Starling & Carolina Star, which didn’t ignite the bluegrass world.
John Duffey, an instrument repairman and luthier by trade, and the son of a professional opera singer, had a four-octave range and a quirky, funny personality. One friend of his likes to comment on his humor and his fairness. This person often tells the story of how Duffey insisted that she receive the same pay as other emcees at major festivals and walked with her to the promoter to insist that he pay her appropriately, for which she has been forever grateful. Here’s a video compilation that may capture the spirit and quality of Duffey, from a 1990 performance with Seldom Scene, put together from a longer video shot at the Festival of the Bluegrass in Louisville, Kentucky.
Seldom Scene represents a change of perspective in bluegrass music, based on the band members’ backgrounds, musical heroes, and self-identification. These men were urban professionals, and they adopted a broader palette of musical influences then had the more rurally oriented bands that originated in Appalachia and then took their music with them to industrial centers.
Dudley Connell has the longest tenure with Seldom Scene as a lead vocalist, having joined the band in 1995, the same year that Fred Travers replaced Mike Auldridge on Dobro. Connell, founding member of the great Johnson Mountain Boys, a traditional bluegrass band reflecting the influence of, particularly, the Stanley Brothers and also from the D.C. area, brought his love of traditional bluegrass along with his broad knowledge of other musical traditions, assuring that Seldom Scene would continue with its eclectic sound and sensibility. Here’s an example:
With Seldom Scene recently signed to Rounder Records and planning to release its first “new” album in some years, and certainly the first since Ben Eldridge’s retirement, that band will inevitably reflect changes in vibe, color, and content. The addition of Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle represents a significant change, which Rounder co-founder Ken Irwin suggested is pushing the band out of the comfort zone they’ve found over the past 20 or so years. He commented that while the same singers remain, Stewart is pushing the band in some ways, even as he’s able to fit into the established Scene “sound.” Connell confirmed this, saying, “Ron is a disciple of Ben’s and can play every song the way he did when he chooses to. Instead, he shows respect for Ben’s playing while making his own unique contribution.”
Over two generations, Seldom Scene has established a remarkable record of consistency amid change. One lesson in this lies in the value of singing within a bluegrass band. Another is the attention to detail while listening for songs that fit into a particular style. Auldridge once commented: “We liked James Taylor as much as we liked Ralph Stanley … . And we attracted an audience of like-minded people. We were contemporary and urban. We weren’t singing about mother and log cabins because that’s not where we came from.” Thus, songs by Bob Dylan and others, from a range of traditions, are in the Scene’s repertoire.
I’m eager to see and enjoy this latest iteration of a two-generation-long tradition that has always honored its own history while continuing to grow and develop through the years.