How to Keep It Fresh
Fans of Earl Scruggs frequently hold that when he broke with Lester Flatt, his musical partner of 24 years, to form the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons, he actually was only caving in to his desire to please his sons, who wanted to play rock and roll. The Earl Scruggs Revue became popular in its own right, at one time becoming the second-most popular band on the college concert circuit. Meanwhile, bluegrass fans maintain he had rejected bluegrass, a genre that became fixed in the public mind with the first appearance of Flatt & Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry in 1946. But Béla Fleck maintains, in his foreword to the recent biography of Earl Scruggs, that when he met Scruggs in the 1980s, the most striking feature of that meeting was Scruggs’ ability to speak Fleck’s much more modern banjo language, bringing his own fresh ears to the musical conversation.
Last weekend, my wife and I attended the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Hebron, CT, where one band held particular sway for me even as it raised questions about how long-running or legacy acts retain their energy and popularity without becoming stale. As an enthusiast who “only” came to bluegrass early in this century, I had missed the first and second generations of bluegrass music, hearing them only in recordings, or when their music was widely covered by bands both fine and mediocre. Sometimes it was difficult for me to understand what all the nostalgia was about. I enjoyed and celebrated newer and, to me, more exciting music, while hearing these sometimes lackluster interpretations of older fare by bands that only imitated.
Last weekend, however, I was stunned at the high-impact performance of David Parmley & the Cardinal Tradition at Podunk, as they took the stage with energy and enthusiasm. I had first seen David Parmley fronting his own band back around 2004 or 2005, when he seemed to me to be tired and listless. His reputation as a founder, with his banjo-playing father Don, of the legendary Bluegrass Cardinals did not transfer for me. Soon after I first saw him, he left the road for several years. When he returned with David Parmley and the Cardinal Tradition, the act fell flat for me. Now, a few years later, the reinvigorated band has come together as a tight, exciting, entertaining, and musically satisfying band that delivers the music of the Cardinals as well as plenty of well-rendered and enthusiastically presented early bluegrass. Their two sets were riveting. Here they are singing the Bill Monroe standard “Why Did You Wander.”
And here are the Bluegrass Cardinals near the height of their popularity singing “Ridin on the L&N.” Dale Perry is with the current band on banjo, and look for Mike Hartgrove, now with the Lonesome River Band, on fiddle and Larry Stephenson, who fronts his own band, playing mandolin. The Cardinal Tradition does not copy the reference band, but brings its own unique flavor of musical fun and skill.
I discussed this issue with Dudley Connell, longtime lead singer, guitarist, and band spokesman for The Seldom Scene, one of contemporary bluegrass music’s most important and longest lived bands. I wanted to know how the band, through all its changes in personnel, has maintained its luster. With the retirement of banjo genius Ben Eldridge ending all connection with the original Seldom Scene, founded in 1971 as a jam in Eldridge’s basement, the vibe of The Scene has been retained. Connell, one of the longest standing and most influential figures in bluegrass music, founded The Johnson Mountain Boys, popular as a traditional band from the late ’70s through the ’80s, with occasional reunion shows for the next decade. Connell joined the Scene in 1996. Here’s the original Seldom Scene singing one of their most enduring and well-loved songs in a video captured in 1979.
Connell emphasized that staying fresh has been a goal of the Scene since its earliest days. John Duffey, the multitalented and quirky tenor singer and mandolin player, when first asked to join the group, had insisted on fun as a prerequisite for his joining the group, which soon after its founding began to perform around the Washington, D.C., area before gaining ever wider popularity. Even at its peak, it remained a “part time” band, because most of its members had serious professional careers.
Connell noted that the Seldom Scene wants to keep introducing new music, and they have, while realizing that they have a fan base for whom their music represents a time in their own lives that has deep and real meaning, “maybe something bigger than the music itself.” The band needs to find the “proper balance between the old music and new music to make everybody happy,” Connell said.
He contrasted two recent concerts by Van Morrison and Paul McCartney he had attended as examples. He noted that Morrison had refused to play music from his deep and deeply popular catalog of hits in favor of his new recording, while McCartney had played significant material from his newest effort while also providing the audience with plenty of songs from his long and distinguished career. James Taylor, he noted, performed his old songs in new settings, stripping one song down to a solo vocal with guitar accompaniment, while turning another around by adding a lush choir and orchestral background. He noted that changes in Seldom Scene personnel over the years have helped them change colors and musical language, adding freshness to their performances and recordings. With Eldridge’s retirement, the addition of Rickie Simpkins on banjo and fiddle has accomplished such a change. Here’s the current edition of The Seldom Scene:
When musicians aren’t having fun entertaining people with their music, the music itself as well as the audience is the loser. When a band finds itself on a sacred mission to save the tradition, to keep itself alive as it is and was, it loses its vitality. When it celebrates the past and reaches to find the contemporary truth and appeal that works with new audiences, it achieves something special for both those who remember and those being introduced to the music. Music is not an endeavor of deadly seriousness. It must entertain in the present as well as shining a light on its history. Here’s the Seldom Scene having fun with Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally.”