A Washington Monument Steps Back

Ben Eldridge at the 2015 DC Bluegrass Festival - photo by David MorrisOn the night that he won a coveted award, Ben Eldridge had a bit of a secret to share.

“I’m cutting back,” the last original member of the Seldom Scene said between signing CDs after the band’s set Friday night at the DC Bluegrass Union festival in Tysons Corner, VA.

Eldridge had just won DCBU’s Washington Monument Award for lifetime achievement. “Us old guys like to win awards,” he told the crowd. He noted that it was a special honor to win an award previously given to two of his banjo heroes, Bill Emerson and Eddie Adcock.

Eldridge will play select dates with the band, mostly in the Washington region. “I’m not going to fly to many shows,” he said.

While he’ll be making fewer appearances on stage, he said the band he co-founded in 1971 will be in good hands. The current lineup – Dudley Connell, Lou Reid, Fred Travers and Ronnie Simpkins, have been together since 1995. And Eldridge called Trevor Watson, who will play the shows he skips, “a fine picker, and a fine young man.”

The news isn’t a total shock. Eldridge has missed some road trips in the last year since hurting his back, and Watson has been a stellar fill-in. But Eldridge recently told his bandmates that he was planning to dial back even more.

Ben Eldridge at the 2015 DC Bluegrass Festival - photo by David MorrisHe also retired recently from his day job as a mathematician and he and his wife, Barbara, hope to do some traveling.

Since injuring his back, Eldridge has mostly played from a stool, as he did Friday night. He said pain was radiating down his leg during the set, although his discomfort was invisible to the audience. He smiled and joked and played tasteful licks, as always. When I pointed that out to him, he grinned and said in true showman’s fashion, “Well, you can’t let it show.”

After DCBU President Randy Barrett presented the award in the middle of the band’s set, Ben joked that he would use the glass statue as a capo. Then, in one of those special moments, the band played Pickaway. It was a nod to Ben and the other founding members of the Seldom Scene, who opened their first-ever stage set with that instrumental more than 40 years ago.

Rickie Simpkins and Lou Reid watch as Ben Eldridge accepts the Monument Award at the 2015 DC Bluegrass Festival - photo by David MorrisBen Eldridge has played thousands of sets since inviting a group of friends over to pick in his basement and play weekly sets at clubs in Washington and its Maryland suburbs.

Forty-four years later, he continues to pick away. He’ll just be doing it less often these days, and enjoying other things in life a bit more.

When you earn monument status, you can do that.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.