The Seldom Scene was a progressive bluegrass band that started in 1971. I say “was” because even though the band technically still exists, it only has one original member and I think is no longer leading the way for other bands and fans like they used to. In the 1971-1981 time frame the band was really something special and luckily they left us with eight albums that still inspire and influence musicians today. Despite the fact that these albums were written and recorded 30-40 years ago, the music they contain is as applicable today as it was then and I think if you were to look in the record and CD collections of most bluegrass fans and/or musicians you would find most of these early Seldom Scene albums in their collections. The band combined excellent songwriting, beautiful harmony vocals, instrumental prowess, humor and quirkiness to form a very well respected and important band in the bluegrass realm.
When the band formed, each member was a professional “other” in real life, the banjo player Ben Eldridge was a mathematician (and a graduate of University of Virginia), John Starling who sang, played guitar and wrote a lot of their songs was a physician, Tom Gray who played bass was a cartographer for National Geographic, dobro legend Mike Auldridge was a graphic designer, and mandolinist and vocalist John Duffey was a luthier. John Duffey actually had already had a very successful musical career as one of the members of The Country Gentlemen who would also end up being an extremely popular and important band in the bluegrass genre, but he had become disillusioned and actually quit the music business before joining the Seldom Scene. Due to his experiences in The Country Gentlemen, Duffy insisted that The Seldom Scene have several ground rules before he would fully join. Among them were rules about the band members keeping their day jobs, the band would play once a week locally, and that they would maintain only a light tour schedule.
One of the things that made the band so successful was the once a week playing schedule. They had a long standing and regular job playing at one of two clubs in the Northern Virginia/DC area- the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda Maryland and The Birchmere in Alexandria Virginia. They would play at these places for several years even while they were touring the nation and the world (light touring schedule?) and recording award winning albums and I think this home base and the close contact they would have with their fans helped keep them relevant and to know just what it was that made them special. The light touring schedule actually became a source of conflict in the band and at times members wanted more than light touring and so came and went as musicians will do sometimes.
I saw the band live many times in the 1970s and was never disappointed in their musicianship (nothing short of amazing), stage banter (a lot of humor both musical and verbal), song selections (they were not a band who did the same set all the time), or the fact that after the show you could walk around and find them interacting with their audience- something that seems oddly missing these days.
Speaking of musicianship and progressive bluegrass, the highlight of many shows the band did was the song Rider. The band used this song to showcase the musical talents of each member by allowing them a solo spot in the song to do literally whatever they wanted to do. Many times band members would even walk off the stage while these musical solos were taking place and the song would go on for 10-15 minutes which in the bluegrass world at the time was completely unheard of. I always loved seeing them play this song live because of their facial expressions while they were playing, especially when they had done something particularly innovative that the crowd responded to- this was a band that fed on the audience reactions and the more the audience would respond the more innovative the band would get.
As I mentioned, the band is still together but they are not the same in a lot of ways. Personally, I think their innovation and energy ran out sometime in the mid 1980s. Changing personnel, changing times, the death of John Duffey and other factors really seemed to affect the band, at least in my view, and even though Ben Eldridge is still out there playing and singing and recording, they just don’t seem to have “it” anymore for me. I am very grateful for those first ten years though, Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Old Train, The New Seldom Scene Album, and Live at the Cellar Door are truly some of the greatest albums ever recorded in this genre and I am highlighting………
Act One Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18.S448 A382 1993
The Seldom Scene’s first album, cleverly named Act One has several highlights. In the interest of space though I will mention three songs that I find exceptional:
Raised by the Railroad Line– I don’t know if it is because I lived near a railroad line and my own grandfather was a railroad man or not, but this song really resonates with me. John Starling wrote and sang this one, and he captured some fantastic imagery in the lyrics-
And the brakeman waves from the red caboose
He’s a part of the past that never quite turns loose
It’s a part of the soul and the heart and the mind
Of a boy who’s raised by the railroad line
Sweet Baby James– The Seldom Scene’s version of this James Taylor classic is actually the one that comes to my mind when I hear the title. I don’t know if it’s the lonesome sound of Starlings voice or the haunting harmonies in the chorus but there is something here in this song that really speaks to me.
Will There be any Stars in my Crown– I think the vocal on this song is wonderful, the sound of it paired with the beautiful dobro in the background are wonderful. Combine that with the dead on harmonies in the chorus and this song sticks in my mind for days after I listen to it.
Act Three Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18.S448 A384 1990
Act Three has some of my favorites on it,
Rider– I’ve mentioned this one already, I never tired of listening to or watching this song, it is a real showcase of the band members and I never wanted it to end when they played it.
Muddy Water– This is a gut wrenchingly sad song sung from the point of view of a man watching a flood coming. He knows when he leaves his house it will be for the last time because the flood is coming to take his house, his land, his history there. The imagery and feeling in this song is very heavy.
It’s hard to say just what I’m losing
Ain’t never been so all alone
Mary grab the baby river’s rising
Muddy water’s taking back my home.
Well muddy water’s taking back my home
Little Georgia Rose– This is a Bill Monroe song that The Seldome Scene did a fine job of. This song shows off their fantastic harmonies and solid bluegrass playing.
Old Train Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18 .O43 1988
Old Train– (another train song!) I think I like this song because the singer is watching the train go by remembering his freewheeling youth but knowing that he’s now found a home thanks to all of the places the train took him. I like to think that he goes to the tracks each day to watch them roll by, maybe waves at the conductor and the brakeman then turns and walks back home to his comfortable chair and thinks how lucky he was to have found it.
Old Train, I grow weary at the miles
And I miss the freedom that was mine
Old Train, just to think about those times
Ill smile when you’re highballing by
Old Train, each time you pass
You’re older than the last
And it seems I’m too old for running
I hear your rusty wheels grate against the rails
They cry with every mile
And I think Ill stay awhile
C&O Canal– a song written by John Starling for a documentary about the C&O Canal. There is something haunting and beautiful about this; maybe it’s about yet another way of life that is disappearing, maybe it’s the harmonies, I don’t know, it’s beautiful though.
Appalachian Rain– I love a good banjo instrumental. I really love a good banjo instrumental in a minor key and that folks is what we have here!
Live at the Cellar Door Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18 .R43 1997
I think this album was probably issued to all bluegrass music fans or at least was required listening. I still have my original LP of this and it has been played so often it is turning white, so I bought it on CD a few years ago so I could keep listening. There are songs on here that i learned by playing my banjo along with the record over and over and over (Pickaway, Grandfather’s Clock) This was a two record set, recorded live and it shows just exactly why the band was a success. It is complete with stage banter, blistering instrument playing, beautiful harmonies, and several examples of how the band didn’t seem to take itself too seriously to interact with the audience during the show. It is hard to pick any favorites here that I haven’t already mentioned above, they are here on the record as well as many others but here goes:
He Rode All the Way to Texas– (guess what, it’s another song about a train!) I guess I am just a sucker for those sad John Starling songs and apparently I like train songs too.
A light shines from my window
Just can’t sleep no more
Lord it hurts so much to be alone
But the real men never do admit
It’s them that might be wrong
At least that’s what he told me in his song
He rode all the way to Texas on an old freight train
Didn’t miss the girl he left behind
He rode all the way to Texas
Didn’t shed a tear
He’s letting you know that he’s the moving kind
Pickaway– Really, I learned this song by playing this track over and over and over and over and over and over and over. I still like it too!
Grandfather’s Clock– Another one I learned off this record from playing it over and over and over. This version is kind of fun because each time the song goes around the band they play it faster. It’s good fun.
So, there are a few albums to help fill your spare time this summer, have a listen!
Oh and I just noticed the Seldom Scene is coming to The Lime Kiln August 14.