Heard and not seen

There’s just something about a good bluegrass band. If the chemistry is right, a group may keep the music hot for years — through lineup changes, and maybe even death.

Take The Seldom Scene (and you’ll be glad you did). After two decades holding court as one of the most influential bluegrass bands on the planet, most of its members left to pursue other projects. Then musical innovator and charismatic showman John Duffey, a founding member, up and died.

You’d think, then, that The Seldom Scene would be seen not merely seldom, but not at all. After a short hiatus, however, the band has re-formed and is on the road again with new material and a lineup of musicians that could be considered the Who’s Who of Bluegrass: The new Scene features noted mandolinist Lou Reid, Beltway bluegrass veteran Dudley Connell (the new lead vocalist), bassist Ronnie Simpkins and dobro player Fred Travers.

When the original group was getting started near Washington, D.C., in the early ’70s, Connell was busy founding another tidewater bluegrass band called The Johnson Mountain Boys. So, even though he didn’t join the Scene until 1995, just before John Duffey’s death, you could say Connell was there from the beginning.

Back in the summer of 1971, a bunch of guys in the D.C. area got together to play bluegrass. They were average guys, at least by Beltway standards: There was a mathematician, a graphic artist, a National Geographic staffer and an ear, nose and throat specialist. The mandolin player, John Duffey, had already survived a 20-year stint with his first landmark bluegrass band, the Country Gentlemen — but he’d grown tired of the constant travel and had retired to become an instrument repairman.

The Seldom Scene played for fun, and they played what they wanted to, however they wanted to, unrestrained by old-time-string band conventions or the need to make money. The band got its name from the fact that none of the members were all that interested in touring regularly. Nonetheless, their legendary aura quickly seeped into the regional consciousness.

“John told me they thought of [their weekly gig at an Alexandria, Va., venue called The Birchmere] as their Thursday-night card game,” Connell recalls. “He said they just like[d] to play, anyway. That anyone would want to listen was kind of a surprise to the band, the way John said it. I think it kind of grew out of the talents of those guys, that they developed such a following.”

Another mold-breaking feature was the band’s unprecedented choice of material; its first few albums included songs by James Taylor and Bob Dylan. The band didn’t act like a bluegrass band, either: Duffey, in particular, was known for letting it all hang out. As a result, the Scene’s audience knew them as the regular guys they were.

“We had completely different audiences, the Scene and the Johnson Mountain Boys,” remembers Connell. “I found the Scene’s audience to be a younger and more contemporary following than the Johnson Mountain Boys had … The choice of songs may have done it, but I think it was John’s carefree attitude on-stage that made people feel at home.”

Duffey didn’t look like a bluegrass musician any more than he acted like one: Though he still sported the trademark ’50s flattop left over from his Country Gentlemen days, he wore his everyday clothes — invariably mismatched, and decidedly loud — on-stage.

All the band’s members were exceptional musicians, but Duffey was unquestionably the standout. For 20 years, the band filled the Thursday night slot at The Birchmere, packing the club each week with an even-more-diverse audience. The proximity to the nation’s capital meant that the audience often included heads of state and members of Congress, who stole across the Potomac to hear the working man’s music.

“It’s really not that hard to understand why The Seldom Scene would have [attracted] a new audience to bluegrass, and that’s what they did, for sure,” Connell maintains. “I think a big part of it was the tunes they [covered], like ‘Sweet Baby James,’ and some of the more contemporary songs no one thought a bluegrass band would or should perform. Then, they’d turn right around and do an old traditional tune. … They covered a lot of bases, and I think it opened some folks’ eyes to bluegrass that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise. I like to think that they would hear the Scene, and then they’d go on and listen to Ralph Stanley, or something like that.”

In 1994, dobro player Mike Auldridge, vocalist Moondi Klein and bass player T. Michael Coleman left The Seldom Scene to pursue Chesapeake, a project they’d been working on during one of the many stretches when the band was idle. That left Duffey and banjo player Ben Eldridge as the only original members left on the Scene. But they carried on admirably, freshening their sound with the addition of longtime friend Connell, Ronnie Simpkins of the technically demanding Tony Rice Unit, and exemplary dobro player Fred Travers, late of the Gary Ferguson Band.

The Seldom Scene’s next phase seemed to be underway. But no sooner had the “new” group cut its first CD than Duffey died, departing this earth just a few months after bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe.

The music world took it hard. Long obituaries appeared in the Washington Post and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine; in this writer’s opinion, the most touching piece (penned by Connell himself) appeared in Sing Out! magazine. Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin entered these stories, plus his own comments, into the Congressional Record, proving once and for all that the band could make a bluegrass fan out of just about anyone.

And although Duffey’s presence and influence will be missed, staff changes aren’t exactly new to the Scene (it’s serendipitous that North Carolina resident Lou Reid, who sang for the Scene years ago, has returned to the group).

Over the years, The Seldom Scene used its musical prowess to push bluegrass music to new places, attracting scores of new fans to the genre in the process. Like Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, like Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and perhaps even like Doc Watson, still playing on without Merle, the Scene long ago stopped being a bluegrass band and became an institution.

Notes Connell, “We’ve all met a lot of folks over the years … and I’m sure they’ll be looking for us.”

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