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Bluegrass Bedrock

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a hillside slash of verdant green 30 minutes west of Washington, two modest gray barns adjoin in silence. It's peaceful here. This might be a good place to stable horses, keep a few head of cattle.

Step inside, though, and you get it right away. The burnished golden timbers - the flooring, the walls, the rafters, the 352-seat theater - say, "Hush and listen; go back in time." The Barns of Wolf Trap, now 200 years old, were moved 20 years ago from their home in upstate New York to Vienna, Va., and reconstructed using 18th-century techniques. And like the performers who have graced the stage - from Lyle Lovett to Alison Krauss, from Branford Marsalis to Emmanuel Ax - the Barns at Wolf Trap seem to vibrate their own excellence.

That suits the Seldom Scene just fine. On this night in October is a once-in-a-lifetime show, the 30th anniversary of the Washington-based bluegrass band considered one of the world's best - not to mention one of the most influential. "Seeing the Seldom Scene live is one of those experiences in music that really last," says Jack Tottle, a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, "because it is so different and appealing, pushing the limits of bluegrass without quite straying beyond it."

In the early days, the Scene quietly reinvented bluegrass music in each other's basements. They'd all mastered the traditional high-lonesome sound that titans like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs had pioneered. But they wove in something newer, something hipper. Like the Barns themselves, they paid homage to the past, threaded in elements of the present, and created something unique for the future. Says Linda Ronstadt, a friend of the band since 1973, "I reckon I'd break my neck to see them live."

For Ben Eldridge, their birth is a real head-scratcher. A founding member of the Scene and, at 63, still an innovator and banjo picker extraordinaire, he says the band accidentally formed during casual "pickin' parties" in the late '60s and early '70s. "We had no ambition whatsoever to form a band. It was just a bunch of guys having a few beers at their once-a-week card game. But man, it's been a great ride."

Put it in its 30-year perspective: Depeche Mode and Devo. Pee-Wee Herman and Andrew Dice Clay. Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. A war against a sovereign desert nation. Six presidents, one who resigned, one who got impeached. And in the bluegrass world, hot up-and-coming bands like Hot Rize, the Newgrass Revival, and Clarence White and his New Kentucky Colonels. All came and went as the Scene, in one configuration or another, rolled on. "No matter how bad we've played," Eldridge says with a sly wink, "at least you can say we've got longevity."

A teen-ager in Richmond, Va., hunches over his Victrola, placing his 45-rpm record on the turntable with care. It's 1955. Here in the little sun porch off his bedroom, he shuts the door and windows and isolates himself for hours, listening to and playing banjo along with the great master of the instrument, Earl Scruggs. Scruggs is so driving, so fast, so high-octane, he has resuscitated not just the instrument but the sound of bluegrass music. For the teen, the only way to hang on and mimic the Scruggs style is to slow the turntable down from 45 rpm to 33. "The vocals on the record ... sounded ... like this," says Eldridge in the tone of a man speaking underwater.

His wasn't a musical household: His father was an attorney, his mother a homemaker. But they tolerated his passion for what was then called "hillbilly music." "For some reason, that kind of music just resonated with me," says Eldridge. "I liked it. I still like it. I play it because it's fun."

At 9, his mother had given him a $13 Gene Autry Melody Ranch Special guitar from the Sears catalog. Five years later, he heard Scruggs play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the banjo - a tune the Scene now refers to as "the national anthem" - and it dropped his jaw. "Man! That is amazing," the boy thought. "I've got to learn how to do that." He badgered his father into buying him a banjo for his 16th birthday.

His parents rarely interfered with their son's oddball interest. One night, though, things got a little ugly. The banjo, the most complicated of folk instruments, calls for a lot of trial-and-error, and his father couldn't take it any more. He stuck his head into Ben's room. "He gave me the most disgusted look you ever saw ," recalls Eldridge. "And he said, 'Son, buying that banjo for you was the biggest damn mistake I ever made. That thing is nothing but a cacophony of harsh, unpleasant sounds.'"

"I had to look up the word 'cacophony' in the dictionary," chuckles Eldridge, an avuncular man who favors V-neck sweaters onstage. "At the time, he was about right."

His obsession with the banjo never waned. Even when he was in his 30s, he'd come home from work and say, "Honey, where's my banjo?" He hints that the instrument might have come between him and his two ex-wives. "I'm pretty sure (my first wife) was jealous of the banjo," he says sheepishly, "and she had every right to be."

That sun porch in Richmond was the incubator for his passion. The boy listened to a slowed-down Flatt and Scruggs playing the Carter Family classic "The Wabash Cannonball" and matched every note he could. And darned if, in a few short hours, he didn't learn a lick or two.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, as a vibrant folk movement swept America, it emerged in the Washington area in the form of bluegrass. Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen were kings of the genre, including the imposing John Duffey, an irascible mandolin player who intimidated almost everybody he met. "You had to go in some pretty rough places to hear the music," says Eldridge, laughing. "They had chicken wire between the band and the fans. You wouldn't bring your girlfriend, let alone your wife, there. You could end up with a chipped tooth."

At a hot bluegrass venue called the Shamrock, Eldridge downed a couple of pitchers of beer one night before mustering the courage to approach Duffey. "He completely blew me off," Eldridge remembers. "He just gave me one of his famous sniffs and walked away. You didn't just go up and talk with members of the Country Gentlemen, let alone Duffey."

Ben's own music scene was more underground. The future band members he met at pickin' parties had high-profile day jobs, too. John Starling, a guitarist and songwriter with a melancholy voice, was a head and neck surgeon. ("I think the fancy name for it is 'otolaryngologist'," says Eldridge.) Tom Gray, a cartographer at National Geographic ("Yup, he made them there maps"), laid out a dynamically thumping bass and won numerous awards at festivals. Eldridge, having mastered the Scruggs style and developed his own, was a sonar mathematician. Mike Auldridge was a commercial artist with the Washington Evening Star as well as a pioneer on his instrument, the Dobro - a sort of lap guitar played with a slide to get that "twangy" sound.

From the beginning, the group sounded like no other. The lead vocalist, Starling, had a lower-pitched voice than the high-and-lonesome front men of traditional bluegrass bands. "He sang more like a folk singer," says Tottle of East Tennessee State. "It made you think of Peter, Paul and Mary or the Kingston Trio. But you could never imagine (those people) singing bluegrass." Starling even had an idiosyncratic way of holding a pick that helped him bridge the gap between bluegrass and folk. He opened his future band mates to a whole new range of songs, including what would become signature Scene tunes, such as the languid "C&O; Canal," "Muddy Waters" and "All the Way to Texas."

The band's original members - Eldridge, Auldridge, Starling and Gray - didn't find their first paying gig so much as it found them. In 1971, when an act at the Rabbit's Foot, a D.C. club, had to cancel, the manager called Eldridge to see if they could put something together. Ben shrugged. "We weren't even a band; we didn't have a name. But I said, 'What the heck? Sure.'"

Starling felt a good mandolin was essential to rhythm in bluegrass - its chucka-chucka chops lay a steady foundation - and the nameless group lacked one. So one night at Eldridge's house, an idea struck him that was so outrageous, so presumptuous, so preposterous that none of them had contemplated it. He thought of Duffey.

The contentious mandolinist had left the Country Gentlemen in 1969 because he hated the hassles of booking, rehearsals and travel. (In his lexicon, airplanes were "vomit comets," and he refused to board one.) He hadn't played in public for two years. He was working at an instrument repair shop in Arlington, Va., doing just fine, thank you, though grouchy when anyone brought up bluegrass or the Gentlemen.

"It's impossible to describe John's mystique," says Eldridge. "He wasn't just big in bluegrass. He was huge. We were absolute nobodies. But I can still see Starling picking up that wall phone in my kitchen and calling John Duffey. I was listening to Starling's end of the conversation. 'Well, good!' he says. 'Yeah, we can get together next weekend, sure!' My eyes were like saucers.

"None of us could believe it. Of all people, John Duffey wanted to play with us."

They played the Rabbit's Foot three times in late 1971, and even with the legendary Duffey, it didn't come easy. The third time they performed, the Redskins were on Monday Night Football. When a friend of the band asked the bartender to lower the TV's volume, he flung their buddy into the street. "Hey, that's a friend of ours!" said Eldridge.

No matter. They packed up their instruments and left. Eldridge and Starling headed to the Red Fox, a tonier bluegrass joint, watched the rest of the game and, while they were there, landed a regular gig for the band. "To my way of thinking," laughs Eldridge, "that's a pretty good deal."

Word spread like a prairie fire that Duffey was performing again, that he would be at the Red Fox with this assortment of basement pickers. The place was packed to the rafters. "I do not have particularly fond memories of that show," says Eldridge, shaking his head. "We used a set list that Starling made up. We wore bluegrass uniforms, the whole deal. We played great, though. The (three-part) singing was tight, especially with John's high tenor. The banter was flying back and forth. People had a good time and remembered that."

The imposing Duffey, meanwhile, continued to intimidate the players in Eldridge's embryonic band (Duffey dreamed up the name Seldom Scene; he didn't want to play too often). But over a few games of chess, he and Eldridge forged a bond. "I whipped him every time," says Eldridge. "I think that might have given him some respect for me.

"He really was a tender, soft-hearted guy - loyal as the day is long. John didn't talk much, and a lot of people saw that as arrogance. Actually, he just marched to his own drumbeat."

Duffey became widely considered the heart of the band, according to Dan Hays of the magazine "Bluegrass Unlimited." He was already a star when he joined the group, and it was hard to ignore his 6-foot-3 frame, his onstage gallivanting and his awesome four-octave vocal range. But his habits were peculiar. He disliked going into the studio to record separate tracks; he wanted the music fresh and lively. He loathed rehearsing. Tight as the band was, and still is, they rarely practiced together.

Duffey also liked to front the group and banter with his quick, cutting wit. He watched Johnny Carson religiously and scribbled notes in a special notebook when a good joke came along. At one show, Duffey introduced a favorite song, "Bringing Mary Home." A woman in the audience hollered, "No, I don't like that one; play something else!" Duffey planted hands on hips, gave an affronted look, waited a beat and said, "Madam, may your gynecologist keep his gloves in the freezer."

"Sometimes you wanted to find a hole to crawl into," says Eldridge in wincing admiration. "You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth."

The Scene has remained popular over the years partly due to Duffey's philosophy: It doesn't matter what they think of you, as long as they notice you. Dressed in a Hawaiian or bowling shirt, wrestling pants and a brush-cut hairstyle, he defied the tradition that bluegrass players wear uniforms- Western suits, bolo ties, Stetsons. He was demonstrating that you could try new things in this hidebound genre.

That idea fit well with a group that was pushing the musical envelope of bluegrass - respecting its traditions while expanding its repertoire of sounds and songs. When Duffey sang Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" - first in the Country Gentlemen, then in the Seldom Scene - he was treading fresh terrain. Starling brought in contemporary songs: a Grateful Dead tune, "I Know You, Rider," one of the band's staples for at least 10 years; another Dead tune called "Dark Hollow," and James Taylor's, "Sweet Baby James." Over the years, they've transformed rock songs like "Lay Down Sally" and "After Midnight" (Eric Clapton) and "Nadine," by Chuck Berry, into bluegrass, merging them seamlessly with old chestnuts like "Old Gray Bonnet" and "My Little Georgia Rose."

"It's amazing what they can do," says friend, fan and songstress Emmylou Harris, who was a full-fledged member of the D.C.-area scene in the early '70s. "They've managed to take bluegrass music and refine it in a way, without throwing away the origins of the instruments and where they came from. You can hear a Beatles song, and they put their own spin on it - they make it their own song - and it doesn't feel jarring at all." The band's current repertoire includes a Dean Martin song ("With the Small Exception of Me"), a Monkees' number ("What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?") and a tune that Dudley Connell, current lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, likes to introduce as "a song written by that widely respected bluegrass artist, Mr. Bruce Springsteen" ("One Step Up, Two Steps Back").

Harris brought her friend, rising celebrity Linda Ronstadt, to her first Scene show. "It's the only time in my life I've ever become an instant fan," says Ronstadt. After the performance, the group headed to Starling's house and sang and played all night. "And, of course, John had to get up at zero o'clock in the morning and do his (hospital) rounds," says Ronstadt. "The rest of us slept, because we were musicians. We never knew, somehow, about his other life. We thought he belonged entirely and exclusively to us."

The Scene's songs came from everywhere. Duffey, the son of an opera singer, spent hours at the Library of Congress poring over obscure folk poems that could be set to music. The old-timey songs - Carter Family, Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe tunes - as well as flat-out breakdowns, blended with the rest. "Gosh, we've tried a little of everything," says Eldridge. "A great song is a great song, no matter where it comes from."

In its various incarnations, the Seldom Scene has put out 22 CDs. They're aiming to make the 30th anniversary show into another. And because the group honed its chops at the Birchmere Music Hall, now in Alexandria, Va., every Thursday night for 20 years, the club's owner, Gary Oelze, has more than 800 live Scene shows on tape and is culling from them a "Best Of" retrospective.

The late '80s and early '90s brought a series of crises that almost extinguished the Seldom Scene. Starling left to start a medical practice in Alabama. Tom Gray bailed when he sensed a pressure to take the band in a more "commercial" direction. His replacement, T. Michael Coleman, played only electric bass, and that altered the sound of the mix. Mike Auldridge, generally considered the finest Dobro player on earth, wanted to introduce a country-and-western flavor by bringing in a pedal steel guitar. By the early '90s, the Scene had a new vocalist, Moondi Klein, a New Yorker who wanted to "modernize" the sound.

Auldridge, Klein and Coleman, while still in the Scene, formed a spin-off band, Chesapeake, to get that other sound happening. "They're great musicians," says Eldridge, the kind of man who takes pleasure in the accomplishments of others, "but I never could figure out what they were playing. It wasn't quite folk. It wasn't quite rock-and-roll. It was great stuff, but it never really found a niche."

Chesapeake made a pact never to book a show that would conflict with the Scene's schedule. Once, though, they violated that oath, and the veteran band members weren't told until the last minute, leaving them with only 20 percent of a band. "I'd never been actively angry at anybody in any band till then," says Eldridge. "But I blew my stack." It was Eldridge and Duffey against the rest. Duffey was so enraged he called music producers and told them if they ever booked Chesapeake, they would never get the Scene again.

Duffey and Eldridge had drawn the line. They knew there were plenty of bands - one including Earl Scruggs himself - that had made the mistake of leaving their bluegrass roots behind to chase after rock or fusion. In the aftermath of the furor, they were left with a band of two.

One morning in 1995, the singer Dudley Connell was leafing through a copy of "Bluegrass Unlimited" when he saw an item announcing the demise of the Seldom Scene. Connell, a professorial, round-faced man, had toured the world for 20 years as lead singer of the Johnson Mountain Boys. "To be honest with you, I was scared of John (Duffey)," he says. "But I mustered the courage to pick up the phone and call him and stammer something like 'that's really a shame. You guys are a fixture.' " Duffey told him the notice was premature. If they could find three compatible new players, they'd stay together.

This time it was Duffey's turn to be floored. Connell, perennially a candidate for the International Bluegrass Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year, suggested they get together at Duffey's to sing a few songs and see how it sounded. Connell played straight-up, no-frills music - "bluegrass-Nazi" style, as the irreverent few call it - so it had never occurred to the Scene to get in touch with him. They arranged a time and a date. Duffey and Eldridge invited a prominent bassist, Ronnie Simpkins, too, as well as an advanced Dobro student of Auldridge's, Fred Travers. The group stood around Duffey's pool table and played "Blue Diamond Mine," a Johnson Mountain Boys favorite; "Wait a Minute," a Scene staple, and a few standards.

The blend was instant. Connell's voice strengthened the bluegrass strain in the mix; Travers, an Anne Arundel firefighter with a voice like an angel's, sounded almost exactly like master Auldridge on the Dobro; and Simpkins, a musical researcher for the Library of Congress, laid out a tasteful, thumping bass.

This, to the senior members, was a Seldom Scene that could continue. For the next year, Duffey and Eldridge felt like fathers; the "kids" in the band - all in their 30s or 40s - had grown up listening to and playing Scene music. "This is the first time," Eldridge remembers Duffey saying, "that I've enjoyed playing in 20 years."

The phone rang at 6:15 on the morning of Dec. 10, 1996. Eldridge reckoned it was something bad. John Duffey, who had become his closest friend, was in intensive care after suffering a massive heart attack. Eldridge got out of bed and called the other band members. They stood vigil with Nancy Duffey outside her husband's room.

Eldridge sensed that Duffey, an inveterate smoker who always salted his food to gargantuan excess, was near the end. "I felt like grabbing a nurse and hollering, 'Do you know who you've got in there?! You've got a musical icon in there! He's as big as Bill Monroe!" says Eldridge. "But there was nothing to do except pace and wait." By 10 a.m., their cantankerous friend - synonymous with the Seldom Scene, a titan in the industry - was gone.

All Nancy could say in her shock was, "Looks like you'll have to get a new mandolin player." Her husband, 62, was dead. And so, it seemed, after 24 years, was the Seldom Scene.

The band continued to practice at the Duffeys' house, partly to keep Nancy company, partly because they couldn't bear to let go of their friend. Finally, they had a meeting: Could they play without him? Could they find a new member? Should they do the appearances they'd booked and then quit?

Most wanted to play on. Duffey had so much fun in his last year that they wanted to keep his great vibe going. A few months later, they did hire a mandolinist, Lou Reid, a North Carolinian who had played banjo, mandolin and guitar with country music stars like Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and could approximate the flying-trapeze tenors Duffey had taken on for years. And besides, says Simpkins, "the songs still had a lot of life in them. We didn't want them to be lost."

They weren't. The band recovered the intensity and bluegrass-style sound it had lost in the early '90s. Given their awe-inspiring vocals, the mastery of the instruments, and the desire, still, to express themselves and have fun, they continued to live up to their billing as "America's Greatest Bluegrass Band." "They're so popular they could play 250 gigs a year," says Hays. Instead, they do a comfortable 65 to 70, still living up to the band name Duffey thought up so many years ago.

Though the loss of Duffey inevitably changed the sound and tone of performances, something fascinating emerged after his death. "It's really interesting," says Connell. "People always thought of John Duffey when they thought of the Seldom Scene. I did, too. He was a larger-than-life guy, a great entertainer, a real heavyweight.

"But sometimes I listen to tapes of what we do now," says the 45-year-old, "and I think, 'hey, that's good.' And it isn't only that it's good. It's still the Seldom Scene. It harkens back, in its own way, to the Scene music we all grew up listening to." It had finally occurred to Connell that, while Duffey dominated the group and got the acclaim, it wasn't actually John who defined the Seldom Scene sound. It was the man in the shadows. Those tasteful banjo riffs. The unusually fitting runs. The slow ballads for which he invented a new style.

"Without Ben," says Connell with a glint in his eye, "there could be no Seldom Scene."

At the 30th anniversary at Wolf Trap, Eldridge plays a white-hot show. The mild-mannered scientist hunches over his banjo, tongue in the side of his mouth, like Michael Jordan when soaring through the air. The band introduces new material for the coming CD, and brings back some old tunes - the Monkees' song, for instance - that they haven't touched in years. The sound is new, fresh, alive.

Eldridge says there are things he can't do anymore, some of the hot-shot daredevil moves he could pull off when he was strictly a basement player. Listen carefully, though, and it's the same Eldridge, just a more seasoned one. The band opens with "City of New Orleans," the song Arlo Guthrie made famous, and from the first note they claim slack-jawed attention from the audience.

As if the circle really weren't unbroken, members of the original band take the stage halfway through - a quiet Tom Gray with his trusty stand-up bass; a John Starling whose voice has gone a bit mellower and raspier but no less reverential; a still fast-as-lightning Mike Auldridge, looking sharp in a blazer and silvering beard - along with the players who have learned from the founders all their lives. They play a few numbers - "Keep Me From Blowing Away," which Ronstadt made famous, and "Wait a Minute," a Scene favorite about the loneliness of living on the road. "It's amazing how much the Scene sound remains imprinted," as Ronstadt puts it, "with its own DNA."

And as if to stress the true longevity of this band, to Eldridge's left stands a young man with a guitar, strumming solidly in the shadows, waiting for his solo. This is Chris Eldridge, Ben's 19-year-old son. When his turn arrives, he bashfully steps into the spotlight and launches into a blistering, jazz-inflected country break, using every square inch of the fretboard with astonishing taste and speed. In that solo, you can hear a little of Doc Watson's flatpicking, some spaced-out, bluegrassoid Bela Fleck and just a dash of Al DiMeola. And a lot - a whole lot - of the Seldom Scene.

The Seldom Scene plays the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va., on New Year's Eve. To check the band's appearence schedule, see its Web site, www.seldomscene.com

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