The Seldom Scene
The Seldom Scene
A group that formed to play “just for the fun of it,” the Seldom Scene has become one of the most popular bluegrass bands in America. Members of the Seldom Scene never intended to make a living together as musicians—some of them were retired from other bluegrass bands, and all of them had white-collar jobs in the Washington, D.C., area. Even the group’s name implies a resistance to the limelight, but as Robert Kyle notes in Pickin’ magazine, “from the very start they possessed all of the necessary elements to become a bluegrass supergroup.”
Bluegrass Unlimited magazine reviewer George B. McCeney once observed that the Seldom Scene has been unique virtually since it formed in 1971. “Rarely has a bluegrass band been blessed with such talent from the start,” wrote McCeney, “and perhaps even less often has a band been able to stabilize that talent over an extended period.” The critic is right on both counts. The Seldom Scene formed around a nucleus of seasoned musicians, including the top-ranked John Duffey (mandolin and tenor vocals) and Mike Auldridge
Group formed in 1971 with John Duffey (mandolin and vocals), Tom Gray (upright bass), Mike Auldridge (dobro), Ben Eldridge (banjo and vocals), and John Starling (guitar and vocals); Starling quit in 1977 and was replaced by Phil Rosenthal. Gray has been replaced by T. Michael Coleman (electric bass) and Rosenthal has been replaced by Lou Reid (guitar and lead vocal). Signed with Rebel Records, 1972, and cut first album, Act One, the same year. Moved to the Sugar Hill label, 1979. Performed for President Carter at the White House, June, 1978.
Addresses: Record company —Sugar Hill Records, Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, NC 27706.
(dobro); amazing though it may seem, the band has had only one major personnel change in twenty years. At the same time the Seldom Scene has attracted a host of well-known “guest” performers, including Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, and Jonathan Edwards. Bluegrass Unlimited contributor Don Rhodes concludes that the members of the ensemble “have shown that they can stay at home during the week and still be one of the top groups in America today.”
The initial roots for the Seldom Scene took hold on the University of Virginia campus in the early 1960s. There, two college students—John Starling, a pre-med major, and Ben Eldridge, a math major—spent their few spare moments playing bluegrass music. Graduation separated the two friends, but they were reunited in Washington, D.C., in 1967. By that time Starling was serving an internship in preparation for becoming an army surgeon, and Eldridge was working as a mathematician for a Virginia firm. They formed a basement band with a few other pickers. One of these pickers, Mike Auldridge, played dobro, an instrument so rare in the 1960s that he had to build one himself.
When Starling was sent to Vietnam, the band broke up. Auldridge and Eldridge joined Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, one of the first “progressive” bluegrass bands. In that environment they were encouraged to experiment with bluegrass versions of rock, jazz, and pop music—quite a challenge for a dobro player used to providing the sliding wail to country songs. Starling returned from his tour of duty in 1971, and by that time Auldridge and Eldridge had had enough of professional musicianship. All of them settled down to full-time jobs—Starling in medicine, Eldridge in mathematics, and Auldridge in commercial art for the Washington Star.
The informal picking parties continued, however, and they attracted a seasoned veteran in John Duffey. Duffey had been a founding member of the Country Gentlemen, an immensely popular band. He had retired from that group to run an instrument repair business near Washington, D.C. The last member to join was bass player Tom Gray, a cartographer with National Geographic. Starling was actually the only member who had no professional musical experience, and he encouraged the group to find small gigs—“fun” outings that would not interfere with the members’ regular jobs.
In January of 1972 the Seldom Scene had its debut at the Red Fox Inn just outside Washington. Kyle writes: “Assembled in the small club for their ‘weekly card game,’ the Seldom Scene unknowingly began a career with the deck stacked in their favour with wild cards galore.” Word of the band soon spread—the Washington area is a bluegrass “hot spot”—and within months the group was playing to standing-room-only crowds. Duffey arranged a recording session with Rebel Records, and a debut album, Act One, appeared that summer.
Virtually since that day, the Seldom Scene has been playing selected tours and recording albums at the rate of one almost every year. In 1977 Starling left the group and was replaced by singer-songwriter Phil Rosenthal, also a veteran performer. Oddly enough, some members of the Seldom Scene have held onto their day jobs even in the wake of the band’s success. They continue to perform live at the Birchmere, a club in Alexandria, Virginia, every Thursday night, and they also continue to restrict their concert appearances to the bluegrass festivals held May through October in the Eastern states.
Its “basement band” mystique notwithstanding, the Seldom Scene has risen to the forefront principally through first-class musicianship. Duffey, Gray, and Auldridge have all won awards for their instrumental prowess—Auldridge in particular is a sought-after session player with a score of solo albums to his credit. The group appeals to all age groups, offering bluegrass versions of songs by Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and other rock artists for younger listeners and classic gospel works and traditional tunes for older fans. Rhodes writes: “Scattered throughout their musical selections are instrumental breaks that put chill bumps on your skin and vocal harmonies so sweet you need a fly swatter handy to ward off bugs after the nectar.”
The Seldom Scene enters its third decade as a major force on the bluegrass scene. Kyle calls the band’s evolution “a Cinderella story whose creation has been a significant catalyst in the coming-of-age of blue-grass…. By updating the music while still retaining its traditional roots, the band has achieved and preserved the proper proportions of both old and new.” The critic concludes: “In giving bluegrass music a more contemporary representation and wider audience appeal, the Seldom Scene has successfully extended a new awareness of the acoustic music native to America’s heritage.”
Act One, Rebel, 1972.
Act Two, Rebel, 1973.
Act Three, Rebel, 1973.
(With Linda Ronstadt) Old Train, Rebel, 1974.
The Seldom Scene Recorded Live at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., 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.
(With Jonathan Edwards) Blue Ridge, Sugar Hill, 1985.
(With Lou Reid and T. Michael Coleman) A Change of Scenery, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Best of the Seldom Scene, Rebel, 1989.
Scenic Roots, Sugar Hill, 1990.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
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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