MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We return now to Washington for a story about a bunch of working guys who made it very big as musicians right here in the nation's capital. Jerad Walker gives us an inside peek at a band that transformed the local bluegrass scene and helped establish a now thriving musical tradition in D.C.
MR. JERAD WALKER
In 1971, a doctor, an artist, an instrument repair man, a cartographer and a mathematician formed a bluegrass band. No, this isn't the beginning of a bad joke, it's the story of the Seldom Scene. A group considered by many to be the quintessential Washington, D.C. blue grass band.
MR. JERAD WALKER
The five men, John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, John Starling, Mike Auldridge and Tom Gray were all accomplished musicians, but each member had a day job and most were weary of the travel associated with being a musician. So they agreed to play sparingly and mostly locally. Because of their few appearances, they settled on the same The Seldom Scene and began playing Washington area clubs without much fanfare.
MR. JERAD WALKER
But as mandolin player John Duffey explains in a 1982 interview, that didn't last for long.
MR. JOHN DUFFEY
This was going to be our weekly card game, find a new club to play in, make a few bucks and just have a good time. Well, we were sitting around having a good time, minding our business and got famous.
Duffey and The Seldom Scene's take-home bluegrass music drew heavily from predecessors in the Washington, D.C. bluegrass community, such as the Country Gentlemen and Buzz Busby. But it also stressed the incorporation of songs from folk, pop, jazz and rock 'n roll and was defined by clear and strong vocals and contemporary instrumental breaks that weren't common at the time. Dudley Connell, the current lead singer and guitarist for The Seldom Scene says there's another way that the band diverges from tradition blue grass.
MR. DUDLEY CONNELL
John Duffey told me one time that, you know, he wasn't born in a log cabin and he wasn't brought up in the coal mines. And so, you know, he had sort of a different take on blue grass in general. I mean, John loved and adored tradition blue grass but he also knew that the music needed to grow and he was the guy to do it. I think outside of Bill Monroe, John Duffey's probably the most important single figure in blue grass.
Tom Gray is the bassist and the founding member of the band.
MR. TOM GRAY
Before we started playing it that way, bluegrass really had a hayseed country kind of image. We made it acceptable for city people to listen to this kind of music.
But Dick Spottswood, music historian and host of The Dick Spottswood Show on WAMU's Bluegrass Country says this new sound wasn't introduced without controversy.
MR. DICK SPOTTSWOOD
The southern rural people from whose lives that music grew out of were a little unhappy to see the city kids taking it and sort of running away with it, and everything, but it's how it all evolves. So if it passes from one place to another, you know, the standards change, the traditions evolve and the music becomes something other than what it started out to be. And bluegrass is like anything else, it either evolves or it dies.
The Seldom Scene evolved, too. In 1996, John Duffey died suddenly of a heart attack. Without Duffey at the helm, Dudley Connell and his band mates almost gave up.
That was just a horrible, horrible time. He was just gone. And we assumed that the band was gone, too. And we were really in mourning and grieving the loss of not only John, but the music too. Because we could see -- we had a great time together. It was like family.
But the group pressed on with a new lineup and continues to play in the Washington, D.C. area and across the nation. In November, The Seldom Scene celebrated its 40th anniversary with a sold-out concert at the Birchmere in Alexandria. The show featured performances from members, both, past and present and an outpouring of support from both the local and national music communities. A fitting tribute to a band that helped put the spotlight on Washington's own version of an American musical tradition.
The Seldom Scene really is a product of the Washington areas bluegrass community. It does not sound like Nashville bluegrass music. It doesn't sound like Appalachian bluegrass music from Southwest Virginia. Washington bluegrass has its own sound.
The sound that moved a tradition forward. I'm Jerad Walker.
For more The Seldom Scene, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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