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In 1971, a doctor, an artist, an instrument repairman, 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. bluegrass band.
The five men, John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Mike Auldridge, John Starling, and Tom Gray, were all accomplished musicians, but each member had a day job and most were wary of the travel associated with being a musician. So they agreed to play sparingly and mostly locally. Because of their few public appearances, they settled on the name The Seldom Scene and began playing at Washington-area clubs without much fanfare.
"This was going to be our weekly card game--find a little club to play in, make a few bucks, and just have a good time," Duffey explained in a 1982 interview. But that anonymity didn't last for long. "We were sitting around having a good time, minding our own business and got famous."
The city boys' take on bluegrass
Duffey and the Seldom Scene's take on 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 and 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, thinks there is another way that the band diverges from traditional bluegrass.
"John Duffey told me one time that he wasn't born in a log cabin, and he wasn't brought up in the coal mines," Connell recalls. "And so he had sort of a different take on bluegrass in general. John loved and adored traditional bluegrass, 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 is probably the most important single figure in bluegrass, and we were so lucky to have him in D.C."
Tom Gray, a bassist and founding member of the band, thinks that that this "different take" on bluegrass was instrumental in bringing the Seldom Scene's music (and bluegrass in general) to wider audiences in Washington.
"Before we started playing it that way, bluegrass really had a hay-seed country kind of image," says Gray. "We made it acceptable for city people to listen to this kind of music. We made it socially acceptable in town to be a bluegrass fan."
However, this new sound wasn't introduced without controversy. "The Southern rural people from whose lives that music grew out of were a little unhappy to see these city kids taking it and running away with it, but it's how art evolves," says Dick Spottswood, music historian and host of The Dick Spottswood Show on WAMU's Bluegrass Country. "As it passes from one place to another, the standards change, the traditions evolve, and the music becomes something other than what it started out to be. Bluegrass is like anything else--it either evolves or it dies."
Dealing with change
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," Connell recalls. "He was just gone, and we assumed that the band was gone, too. We were in mourning and grieving the loss of not only John, but the music too because we had a great time together. It was like a 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 area's bluegrass community," says Gray. "We early members of the band and the current members of the band were influenced by all of the people who played here and we played for urban audiences. I think it makes the Washington sound unique. 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."
A sound that moved a tradition forward.
[Music: "Paradise" by Seldom Scene from Act 2]
MC: Forty Years of Washington Music