John Duffey Tribute – Birchmere (Alexandria, VA)
Singer and mandolin player John Duffey had the voice of an angel trapped inside the body of a professional bowler. A large man with a perpetual crewcut and a penchant for loud shirts and polyester, Duffey cut an imposing figure onstage. His unmistakable, octave-spanning high tenor matched Bill Monroe’s high, keening sound with the sobbing heartache of George Jones, while his huge hands fairly flew over the mandolin in slashing bursts of speed. When the 62-year-old founding member of two seminal D.C.-area bluegrass bands, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, died of a heart attack in December 1996, the world lost a uniquely gifted musician.
Nearly two years later, Duffey finally got his due with a sold-out tribute show at the Birchmere, the renowned club where the Seldom Scene had kept a standing Thursday-night gig for more than 20 years. Organized by former Scene bandmate John Starling, the evening was an affectionate, informal affair that found just the right mix of irreverence and melancholy. Starling, who also acted as music director and master of ceremonies, noted at the outset that it might become an annual event — a “celebration of the music of the piece of work we all knew as John Duffey.”
The lineup consisted of most of “the immediate family,” as Starling put it, and included Eddie and Martha Adcock, Bill Emerson, Jimmy Gaudreau, Tom Gray, Pete Kuykendall, Chesapeake (and former Scene) members Moondi Klein and T. Michael Coleman, Akira Otsuka, Phil Rosenthal, and Tony Rice. The current version of the Seldom Scene was there, too: Ben Eldridge, Dudley Connell, Fred Travers, Ronnie Simkins, and Lou Reid. The program was arranged in a loose chronological fashion, starting off in a Country Gentlemen mode, morphing into a Seldom Scene thing by night’s end, and taking on dozens of cast changes throughout the two-set show. The overriding idea was to perform songs written by or associated with Duffey, and if there were a few flubs due to hastily memorized lyrics and unfamiliar keys, well, the crowd was in an expansive mood, content to sit back with the memories.
A “pussycat” according to Connell, Duffey had a weakness for ballads and story songs and liked “story ballads” best of all, joked Starling. Accordingly, the night kicked off with classic Country Gentlemen songs such as “Sad And Lonesome Day”, “Seeing Nellie Home” (with Gaudreau doing an enthusiastic Duffey break on the mandolin), “Take Me In A Lifeboat”, and “He Was A Friend Of Mine”. Starling took the lead vocal on “Bringing Mary Home”, perhaps the best-known Country Gentlemen song, and Rosenthal joined the proceedings for a stately “Heaven”.
Duffey’s skills as an arranger were put on display with a slow, spooky version of “Darling Corey”. The first set ended with a Scene-style acidgrass version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, and “My Little Georgia Rose”, a Monroe tune.
The second set was dominated by various incarnations of the Seldom Scene, Duffey’s band from 1972 until his death. Past and present member Reid did an admirable job singing and playing the Duffey parts in songs such as “Walk Through This World With Me”, while Duffey disciple Otsuka joined in with some crowd-pleasing mandolin breaks on a couple numbers. The between-song reminiscing began in earnest once Eldridge gave a hilariously detailed account of what it was like to eat breakfast with Duffey — and you can rest assured no bran muffins were involved.
Duffey was a master of the creaky one-liner (“I always thought Roe vs. Wade were alternate ways of crossing the Potomac”), and it was recalled that he once passed up a chance to play the White House because he had a softball game (“It wasn’t a paying gig,” someone cracked).
As the evening wound down, though, it was obvious that the considerable legacy he left behind was not a joke. Partly thanks to Duffey’s influence, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene were the first, and the best, of the progressive bluegrass bands that eventually evolved into a movement of sorts that continues today. By incorporating country, jazz, blues and rock songs, and giving them distinctive bluegrass arrangements, he helped open up the music to a large and appreciative urban audience.
Yet the songwriting, harmonies and instrumentation always remained bluegrass-tight, as shown by moving versions of the Duffey-penned “Reason For Being” and one of his signature tunes, “Small Exception Of Me”. Covers of Hank Thompson’s “Girl In The Night” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” rounded out the set. The three encores were also fine examples of typically eclectic Seldom Scene fare: “Life’s Railway To Heaven”, “Long Black Veil” and “Rider”.
It was the final song of the second set, though, that made the show truly memorable. Starling took the mike and said that on his last stint with the Seldom Scene a few years ago, Duffey had taught him a new song, and he had returned the favor.
“This is the one I taught him,” he said. “It’s by Gram Parsons.” As the band launched into a mournful rendition of “Hickory Wind”, with Starling’s world-weary baritone matched by Travers’ dobro, I was taken back to the time I saw Duffey sing this song under an open sky on a summer’s night. His version that night was almost unbearably beautiful, and his aching tenor came rushing back to me unfettered.
I looked around and knew that, for everyone else in the crowd, the same thing had happened — if not for this song, then for another. Duffey’s voice had been there between the notes and behind the harmony, a powerful tribute to his lasting influence.