Mike Auldridge is the country’s best-known master of the dobro, a modified guitar much in demand in bluegrass and country music. In fact, the modest Auldridge helped to rescue the dobro from certain extinction—at the time he began to play the instrument in the 1950s it was not being manufactured anymore. Today Auldridge’s dobro is an essential component of the Seldom Scene bluegrass band and is heard backing up such artists as Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Jonathon Edwards on their albums. Additionally, Auldridge has released a number of solo albums that have sold extremely well, at least by the standards set for bluegrass music.
The dobro is a twentieth-century invention of John Dopyera and his brothers (hence the name do-bro ). It is essentially a guitar, usually made of laminated maple, with a raised bridge and a resonator cone placed in the traditional sounding hole. The musician plays the instrument by sliding a bar up and down the neck while picking the strings with the other hand, for a sound reminiscent of the pedal steel guitar but with a greater range of fluidity. The dobro was created to provide amplified guitar music to country bands before the era of sophisticated electronics. Its usefulness therefore took a dive in the 1940s and 1950s when technicians perfected the pedal steel guitar.
Auldridge is the rare younger musician who was exposed to dobro music as a youth. He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1938 and moved to the suburb of Kensington, Maryland, while he was still a child. He was not born into a musical family, but his uncle, Ellsworth Cousins, had played dobro with Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s. Auldridge heard his uncle play at family gatherings, and gradually he too became a disciple of old time country music.
By the time he was in his teens, Auldridge could play guitar and banjo. His first love was still dobro, however, and he spent many hours trying to find one to buy. The artist told Pickin’ magazine that in the early 1950s “it was impossible to find a Dobro. I used to go around to pawn shops and music stores asking if any of them had one.” Eventually Auldridge made his own instrument, which he used until 1961, when the Dopyera brothers began manufacturing dobros again.
Auldridge’s hero as a youth was Josh Graves, a dobro player who worked with Flatt & Scruggs during the 1950s. Through many painful years of trial-and-error practice, Auldridge taught himself to play the dobro, principally by slowing Flatt & Scruggs records down and imitating Graves’s licks. Auldridge has estimated that he spent eight years perfecting his basic technique and many, many more years developing the unique bell-like tones associated with his work. Although he minored in music theory while a student at the University of Maryland, he taught himself dobro by ear and only rarely applied the college lessons to his craft.
Auldridge began playing bluegrass professionally as a teenager, but he simply could not envision himself performing for a living. Instead he took a day job as a commercial artist for the Washington Star newspaper and worked there for more than a decade. In the meantime he spent weekends playing dobro with Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, quitting that band when it began to impinge on his regular job. In 1971 he joined a small group of ex-professional and amateur bluegrass musicians in the Washington area for informal picking sessions. The group members decided to call themselves the Seldom Scene because, like Auldridge, they all had day jobs.
“It was going to be our weekly card game,” Auldridge joked of his early days with the Seldom Scene. Instead the group—which also contains tenor John Duffey, banjo player Ben Eldridge, bassist Tom Gray, and guitarist Phil Rosenthal—became one of the most sought-after bluegrass acts in the country. In the early 1970s dobro was still a relative rarity in bluegrass
Born in 1938 in Washington, D.C.; married; children: two. Education: Attended University of Maryland; majored in commercial art.
Artist for the Washington Star newspaper, 1960-76; full time dobro player and singer, 1976—. Member of the New Shades of Grass (bluegrass band), 1969-71, and the Seldom Scene (bluegrass band), 1971—. Solo dobro player and studio musician, 1976—; has performed on numerous albums for Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Jonathon Edwards, J. D. Crowe, and the Country Gentlemen. Columnist for Frets magazine, 1979-80.
Awards: Named best dobro player of the year by Muleskinner News, 1974-80; Grammy Award nomination for best male vocalist in country music, 1975.
Addresses: Record company —Sugar Hill, Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, NC 27706.
bands; part of the Seldom Scene’s success can certainly be traced to Auldridge, who wowed audiences with his virtuoso licks. Auldridge became so popular with bluegrass fans, and so revered for his playing, that his fellow Scene members called him “Larry the Legend.” Before long most Seldom Scene albums featured an Auldridge solo.
Still Auldridge held on to his steady job with the Star, but finally fate intervened. The newspaper folded in 1976, and Auldridge found himself out of work. Free for the first time to devote himself entirely to music, the artist blossomed. He began to cut solo albums and made numerous trips to California and Nashville to work as a session musician for some of the top country entertainers. Among his new “customers” were Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the Country Gentlemen. Auldridge also continued his work with the Seldom Scene and prepared dobro lessons in a variety of formats for the many musicians who had become interested in the instrument.
“I always thought it would be nice but never dreamed it would be possible to make a living off of music,” Auldridge told Pickirn’. “In those [early] days it was a really limited audience compared to what it is now.” Auldridge’s career has indeed prospered in tandem with bluegrass music in general, but he is more than just another bluegrass musician. The dobro is a demanding instrument, and few if any pickers have mastered it like Auldridge has. The artist notes that he has been lucky to have chosen to learn dobro at a time when it was almost obsolete, but he has assured his fame by working hard every day to be the best dobro player alive.
“I get up in the morning, and half an hour after I’m out of bed, I’m playing,” Auldridge told The Big Book of Bluegrass. “That’s all I do. I probably play ten hours a day. I hope it doesn’t go away some day. I worked for a long time at a day job, wishing I could play music and have the time for it. Now I’m like a guy who was poor all his life, and all of a sudden came into a lot of money. I’ve got this time, and I just can’t learn enough about music. I can’t develop my technique enough…. I’m always working on it I love playing music.”
Mike Auldridge is probably one of the most approachable musicians in the business. At bluegrass festivals he is often found surrounded by a cluster of would-be dobro players who are eager to glean information from a master. Auldridge’s special brand of acoustic guitar—bluegrass with blends of country, jazz, and even big band—is likely to remain popular in years to come, especially since country music is moving back to its roots. Despite his success, however, the idea that he is the country’s best dobro player does not sit well with Auldridge. He once told Pickin’: “I just don’t like to live up to anything. I just want to pick and have a good time.”
Mike Auldridge and Old Dog, Flying Fish, 1978.
Mike Auldridge, Flying Fish.
Eight-String Swing, Sugar Hill.
Blues & Bluegrass, Takoma.
With the Seldom Scene
Act One, Rebel, 1972.
Act Two, Rebel, 1973.
Act Three, Rebel, 1973.
Old Train, Rebel, 1974.
The Seldom Scene Live at the Cellar Door, Rebel, 1975.
The New Seldom Scene Album, Rebel, 1976.
Baptizing, Rebel, 1978.
Act Four, Sugar Hill, 1979.
After Midnight, Sugar Hill, 1981.
At the Scene, Sugar Hill, 1983.
A Change of Scenery, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Seldom Scene and Special Guests, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Best of the Seldom Scene, Rebel, 1989.
Kochman, Marilyn, editor, The Big Book of Bluegrass, Morrow, 1984.
Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Bluegrass Unlimited, July 1980.
Pickin’, April 1978, November 1978.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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