The Seldom Scene builds upon bluegrass roots
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
The more things change the more they stay the same. Although its latest lineup has been together for a decade and a half, progressive bluegrass pioneers, The Seldom Scene continues to build on the foundations set by the original group more than a half century ago.
"People tell me that we still sound like The Seldom Scene," banjo player Ben Eldridge, the sole remaining founding member, from his home in northern Virginia, said. "We've still got strong vocals, the instrumentation is pretty much the same, and we still do a lot of the tunes that we started doing years ago. People seem to like to hear them and we're not tired of playing them. It remains fresh."
Eldridge and the current Seldom Scene : Lou Reid (vocals, guitar), Dudley Cornell (vocals, guitar), Ronnie Simpkins (bass), and Fred Travers (Dobro) : will be bringing their neo-trad hill country music to Norfolk, Conn. Infinity Music Hall on Feb. 15. The following night, they'll be headlining the second day of the three-day Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham.
"I feel blessed to be able to play with musicians who are easy to get along with," Eldridge said, "and easy to play with."
When the original Seldom Scene came together, in 1971, no one thought that the group would still be together more than four decades later. All of the members had fulltime jobs outside of the band. Mandolin player, tenor vocalist, and unrestrained frontman (and a founding member of The Country Gentlemen), John Duffey repaired instruments in a busy music store. Dobro player Mike Auldridge (with whom Eldridge had played with Cliff Waldron and his New Shades of Grass) worked as a graphic designer at the Washington Star. Vocalist/guitarist John Starling was an intern at Walter Reid Hospital.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Eldridge worked as a mathematician, developing signal-processing algorithms for the Navy's underwater acoustics program. "It wasn't easy," recalled the banjo player of coordinating early practice sessions in his basement, "but we did it. John Starling lived up the street from me. I used to see him all of the time. Mike would come over several evenings a week. We didn't get Duffey too often. He didn't like to practice."
Performing weekly at the Red Fox, in Bethesda, Md., from 1972 to 1978, and then the Birchmere, in Alexandria, Va., along with occasional bluegrass festivals, The Seldom Scene continued to build on their unique musical approach.
"I have to give John Duffey a lot of credit," Eldridge said. "He didn't want to sing about the usual bluegrass topics like mountains and cabins. He listened to all kinds of music. Before I knew him, he used to spend time at the Library of Congress looking for material. Mike and I had been with Cliff Waldron and he was getting away from traditional bluegrass themes, as well. Everybody was fair game, if we thought that we could do their songs. We did a James Taylor song ('Sweet Baby James') on our first album and we used to do a song, 'Country Comfort,' that we got from Elton John, though we never recorded it. Part of it was that we were all city boys. Duffey wasn't much of a radio listener, but the rest of us listened to pop music and rock and roll and some of that leaked into our repertoire."
The Seldom Scene endured numerous personnel changes. In 1986, Lou Reid (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver) replaced lead singer/guitarist Phil Rosenthal (who had replaced Starling), remaining for the next six years. Leaving in 1992, Reid went on to spend the next five years working with Vince Gill, Vern Gosdin, and co-leading a band, Caroline. In his absence, Moondi Klein took his place. Ex-Doc Watson accompanist T. Michael Coleman replaced Tom Gray's standup bass with his electric four-string.
The biggest change, however, came, in 1995, when Auldridge, Coleman, and Klein left to focus on their more-contemporary side group, Chesapeake. "They wanted to do more work," Eldridge recalled. "[Duffey] didn't like to break his neck playing music. It had to be fairly lucrative to get him out of Arlington, Va. I couldn't get any busier."
Eldridge (whose son, Chris, plays in Chris Thiles' band, The Punch Brothers) and Duffey kept the momentum going, adding Cornell (Johnson Mountain Boys), Simpkins, and Travers. "We had our first gig [with the new lineup] on New Year's Eve 1995," Eldridge said, "and [Duffey] died the following December. He had almost a year with us and he was having the time of his life. He was notorious for not wanting to practice, and used to get really grumpy when he had to practice, but when Dudley, Ronnie, and Fred joined, he got back into the music. I'd get a call at work, on Monday morning, asking if I could come over on Wednesday to play. We were doing this weekly. We'd get together at his house and work on stuff. He was the instigator, which was totally out of character. "
Duffey's sudden passing from a heart attack, on Dec. 10, 1996, took everyone by surprise.
"He had some heart problems in the early-80s," Eldridge said, "and we were told later that he needed bypass surgery and never did it. He used to keep nitroglycerine handy. The day he died, we were supposed to catch a plane and go to Jekyll Island to play. He woke up around four in the morning, went to the bathroom and had a heart attack. I got a call from [his wife] Nancy, around 5:30 a.m., saying that he had just gone to the hospital. Barb and I got dressed and went over there. I called the guys. We were all there, outside his room, when he passed away around a quarter to ten. It happened pretty fast. He was only sick for six hours or so."
He continued,"There were times when Duffey would crack all of us up," he continued. "We never knew what was coming. He would say something and we'd wish that we could get small and sneak off the stage. He scared a lot of people. He scared me before I got to know him, but once you got through the veneer, he was a real pussycat, nothing like his stage persona."
The death of former band-mate Mike Auldridge (after a long bout with prostate cancer), on Dec. 29, 2012, hit Eldridge hard. "Mike was one of my oldest friends," he said. "When he passed away, I tried to remember how long it had been that I had known him. I met him in Tom Morgan's basement in '62 or '63. Tom fixed instruments and dealt with old banjos. I started going over and doing menial labor, learning how to repair banjos. That's where I met Mike. Tom had taken an old, flattop, Gibson guitar and put a resonator, a cone, in it. That's what Mike was playing. He had all of Josh Graves' licks down. It was amazing how good he was, after playing for just a short time."
Five years after the release of their Grammy nominated last album, "Scenechronized", in 2007, Eldridge looks forward to getting back to work.
"We have studio time reserved for the middle of April," he said, "and we want to make sure that we've got really good stuff, with the vocals at a high quality. We'll just get some songs that we enjoy playing together and do it. We enjoy each other's company and don't take ourselves too seriously. That's been our modus operandi over the years. We play a lot, but, in the back of my mind, I still think of it as our Monday night card game. Only now, it's Monday night, Tuesday night, and whenever else we could play."
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