This week, we celebrate four decades of recordings from one of the most prolific bands in bluegrass music: The Seldom Scene.
What started out as a weekly jam session snowballed into one of the most influential bluegrass bands of all-time. Ben Eldridge, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, and Tom Gray began meeting on Monday nights just to pick and have a good time. And that may have been all there was, if it wasn’t for one very unique individual.
John Duffey, a founding member of The Country Gentlemen, had quit the music business two years prior. He was essentially fed up with the whole music scene in general, but was coaxed into participating in this weekly jam session. It became evident that Duffey was the missing piece that changed this from a jam session to a bluegrass band.
Mike Auldridge arranged for the group to begin performing publicly. In order to make the leap from the basement to the Birchemere, Duffey came up with a few guidelines which everyone agreed to, and which the band (for the most part) still continues to follow. The major stipulations included the band only making occasional out of area appearances at festivals and special concerts, and the band would continue to keep their day jobs.
On February 20th, 1972, Seldom Scene had their first recording session. Their albums early albums are regarded as some of the most groundbreaking in our type of music, owing to the sheer creativity they display. I think one of the finest examples of this came in 1973, Act III.
You know this is not going to be your typical “run of the mill” bluegrass album right from the first note. Not many bluegrass records start off with an interpretation of a song from the Mary Poppins’ soundtrack, and even fewer can pull it off so beautifully! The notes echoing from Mike Auldridge’s dobro and John Duffey’s lead guitar are so peaceful, and they just seem to dance together. An instrumental rendition of Chim-Chim-Cher-Ee that sounds as gentle as a lullaby just whets your appetite for what this album has in store.
The variety of material that The Seldom Scene has covered over the past forty years is another thing that made them stand out from the crowd. The Mary Poppins’ soundtrack, a song by James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, or Elton John – or a traditional bluegrass number – the Scene has done it all, executed with precision. I say this now, because following Chim-Chim-Cher-Ee, they tear into a gem from the Father.
John Duffey’s interpretation of Little Georgia Rose may be one of the best Monroe covers ever. There’s a reason that it opens Rebel Records’ bluegrass tribute to Monroe, With Body And Soul. The power with which Duffey sings makes you believe that he wrote the song about his own life experience. He makes this bluegrass classic his own with his unique brand of tenor, matched with his equally unique mandolin style.
Act III features many tunes which quickly became Seldom Scene standards. Their version of one of Merle Haggard’s most well-known songs, Sing Me Back Home, is a perfect example. Based on a true story which The Hag witnessed while incarcerated, the song tells the tale of an inmate being lead to his death requesting his fellow prisoner to “sing me back home before I die.” It is a very powerful lyric which is viewed as iconic in the country music realm. John Starling’s take on the tune is a bit more subtle than Haggard’s, which strikes me as refreshing. I am a huge Haggard fan, but Starling’s singing is a little gentler, giving the song added poignancy.
For me, it’s hard to beat a good flood tune. I know it sounds sick, but I love em! Blue Highway’s Pikeville Flood, Tony Rice’s Galveston Flood, or Johnny Cash’s Five Feet High And Rising, flood songs always excite me, and there is none better than The Seldom Scene’s Muddy Water. This is one of my all-time favorite Scene songs, written by future Scene member, Phil Rosenthal, and it still sounds fresh almost forty years later.
This song is done in such a way that it paints a beautiful picture of a horrible scene. I know that sounds impossible, but if you’ve heard this cut, you understand. John Starling’s voice oozes with emotion, making you believe that he’s right there in it. Mike Auldridge’s mournful dobro perfectly supports Starling’s delivery, and is a star on the song. Ricky Skaggs adds impressive fiddle work as well (and at one point an entire string section!), which further bolsters this truly great recording.
Other strong cuts include Another Lonesome Day, Willie Boy, and Mean Mother Blues. Two great instrumentals (in addition to Chim-Chim-Cher-Ee) are Hail To The Redskins and a really cool rendition of Bob Wills’ Faded Love. There is one Gospel tune on the album, the Flatt & Scruggs’ classic Heaven. Act III also introduced a tear-jerker of a love song which Duffey co-wrote entitled Don’t Bother With White Satin.
When it comes to The Seldom Scene, there is one song in particular that encapsulates everything they do best. It is their greatest hit and would be essential to any retrospective collection of bluegrass’s greatest recordings. I am talking about none other than the show-stopper of a tune called Rider.
As soon as you hear the bass introduction, you know what’s coming next! Tom Gray’s bass is always strong, but he really gets to strut his stuff on Rider. And not just on the intro; his bass carries the tune along with that “bum-bum-BUM-BUM-ba-bum-bum-bum” lick.
Ben Eldridge’s banjo work is first rate as well. Personally, I don’t think Eldridge gets enough credit for his innovations on the five-string. He broke a lot of barriers for the instrument, and he chews it up on Rider. Duffey’s mandolin also shines. He goes at it with such ferociousness, you can tell he is pouring his all into the song. What really rounds this song out instrumentally is the addition of Ricky Skaggs’ fiddle. It becomes such an intricate part of the recording and complements everything. The trio of Auldridge, Duffey, and Starling, is historic, and never better than it is here.
Seldom Scene’s Act III (REB-CD-1528) can be purchased from County Sales or the Classic Country Connection. It can also be downloaded digitally from iTunes or Amazon Music. Make sure you don’t miss out on this landmark recording.
Happy 40th Birthday to The Seldom Scene!!!