Ben Eldridge passes 

Ben Eldridge, legendary banjo player and co-founder of the equally legendary Seldom Scene, passed away of natural causes on Sunday evening, Apil 14, 2024, aged 85.

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Eldridge was born in Richmond, Virginia, on August 15, 1938. His early Influences included Earl Scruggs (predominantly), Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Allen Shelton, and Mac Wiseman. 

Ben Eldridge’s first memory of music was of hearing his cousin Mike playing Red River Valley on the harmonica. 

Though none in his immediate family was particularly musically inclined, his own interest continued to grow and become focused on country music. 

Growing up in Richmond, Eldridge became a devoted follower of the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a weekly live broadcast on radio station WRVA. Starting at age of nine or ten, he was taken by his mother to the Lyric Theater once a month to see performers such as Sunshine Sue; Looney Luke and Roly Poly Reed, Crazy Joe Maphis, Grandpa Jones, Benny Kissinger and Curly Collins; and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters (who lived on the same street as the Eldridge family). Later, in the early 1950s, bluegrass groups such as Mac Wiseman, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers were regular acts on the program.

At about the same time that Eldridge, then 9 or 10 years old, started to go to the Old Dominion Barn Dance, he got a Gene Autry Melody Ranch guitar costing $13 from Sears Roebuck and began learning how to play it. Mac Wiseman’s performance of I’ll Still Write Your Name in the Sand hooked Eldridge on bluegrass music. Eldridge said of Wiseman, “…. he was playing all those neat runs on the guitar, and I thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

His father bought him a banjo – a $150 RB100 – for his 16th birthday, and Ben formed a band with some high school friends. At the same time, Flatt and Scruggs had a live evening program on WRVA and Eldridge was able to watch the group perform live in the studio. The first banjo tune that he learned was Flatt and Scruggs’ Dear Old Dixie. Within a little over a year Eldridge was playing this tune at Thomas Jefferson High School’s Junior Stunt Night.  

Additional exposure to the music came during his senior year at high school when Radio WXGI, another Richmond station, broadcast a half-hour program of acoustic country music. Despite having seen many of the top bands in person at the Barn Dance, it only was when listening to one of the DJs on WXGI that he first heard the term “bluegrass.” 

In 1957, following graduation from high school, Eldridge attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he studied mathematics. During the next four years, he sharpened his skills at innumerable picking parties on the campus. Among the regulars was another banjo picker by the name of Paul Craft, who later played with Jimmy Martin and wrote many excellent songs, including Appalachian Rain, Keep Me from Blowing Away, Raised by the Railroad Line, and Through the Bottom of the Glass, all of which were recorded by The Seldom Scene. 

In 1961 he moved to Adelphi, Maryland, where he took a position at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. At about this time Eldridge became acquainted with Bill Emerson and Bill Keith, who became two major banjo picking influences in his life. Over the next two years Eldridge practiced conscientiously, absorbing Keith’s style, learning tunes such as Nola and Humoresque, before towards the end of the decade incorporating Emerson’s drive. 

Several years later, Eldridge met two other Washington DC-area pickers, Mike and Dave Auldridge. By 1967 Eldridge was hosting twice-weekly jam sessions in his home basement. Regular participants included John Starling, the Auldridge brothers, Gary Henderson, then a DJ at WAMU radio on bass, and a guy named Bruce Barnes.

Ben’s first job as a professional musician came in July 1970, when he became the banjo player for Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, replacing Bill Emerson, who left to join the Country Gentlemen. Eldridge recorded three albums while working with the New Shades of Grass. 

It was during this period that Eldridge began experimenting with adapting his picking to different styles of music—a skill which henceforth became his forte. In his notes to Traveling Light, H Lloyd Whittacker eloquently praised Ben for his picking, noting that he was, “Constantly striving for improvement, he has established innovations which are a key to the drive in the group. His ideas are unique and full of vitality and, in every aspect, his playing is performed with thought, originality, and a strong sense of professionalism.”

Cliff Waldron & The New Shades of Grass – Right On! [1970]

Fred Bartenstein commented … 

“Ben’s crisp banjo work reflected the ingenuity, complexity, and elegance of his mathematician’s mind. He had a warm personality and made friends wherever he performed. I first met Ben when he was a member of Cliff Waldron’s New Shades of Grass, and introduced him many times as a stage MC while he was with the Seldom Scene. That band had a huge influence on the bluegrass world, and captivated many new listeners from professional walks of life. Their recordings are timeless, and still sound fresh and appealing a half century later.”

However, by September 1971 the rigors of maintaining a day job and a full performance schedule with the band became too much and Eldridge, along with bandmate Mike Auldridge, left Cliff Waldron. Eldridge commented, “We were playing this ridiculous, tough schedule. We were playing two nights a week until 12:30-1:00 in the morning, and then driving home for an hour and getting up and going to work the next morning—it was just taking its toll on everybody.”

The parting was amicable and, less than a month later, he was sitting in with a pick-up band that filled in for Waldron when he went to Nashville for the October DJ Convention. That ensemble soon morphed into the Seldom Scene, with original members John Duffey, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and Dave Auldridge.

Not long afterwards, in March 1972, they were in the studio recording their first album and in the following May they played their first festival. 

Raised By the Railroad Line

The Seldom Scene – Appalachian Rain

The Seldom Scene – Paradise (Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, August 17, 1974)

Phil Rosenthal, who joined the Seldom Scene in October 1977, first met Eldridge at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival in 1973…… 

“He was very welcoming when I joined the Scene in ’77, easy to get along with, fun offstage. It was amazing playing with him all those years. Ben was a wonderful, inventive musician, fun to be with onstage and off.”

The Seldom Scene – Rider, 1979 

For a number of years, The Seldom Scene had a weekly spot at The Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. Later, they alternated between The Red Fox and The Birchmere, a club across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. When original member John Starling left the group after seven years, the band dropped the Red Fox gig and worked exclusively at The Birchmere. Their weekly appearances helped to establish the latter venue as one of the premier music nightspots in the Washington area.

Eldridge became principal mathematician for a technical engineering firm called TetraTech/ Honeywell Inc., work that he enthusiastically described as, “really as much fun as picking.” His work often required that he fly to California to use a computer facility at the Moffett Field Naval Air Station, located between San Francisco and San Jose. During his West Coast visits Eldridge sometimes sat in with friends in a band called Touch Of Grass, playing at Chuck’s Cellar in Los Altos. 

Other stopping-off places included Paul’s Saloon and at a “neat little store” known as The Fifth String, both of which were in San Francisco. 

While essentially based at The Birchmere, where they had a regular Thursday evening gig, the band would play at festivals across the States, and they even flew to Japan in October 1985 and England in August 1995. 

The Seldom Scene – 15th Anniversary Celebration Live At The Kennedy Center [1988] (Recorded November 10, 1986 )

Seldom Scene – Live at Winterfest, 1988

Seldom Scene at the KPIG Fat Fry Festival, Aptos, California -1993

Seldom Scene – Wait a Minute – 1996 

Having been inducted, along with the other original members of the Seldom Scene, into IBMA’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2014, Eldridge was presented with the 2015 Monument Award by the DC Bluegrass Union.

After a 44-year tenure with the Seldom Scene Eldridge’s last performance with the band was on New Year’s Eve 2015 at the Birchmere Music Hall in the Washington suburbs, joining the band on stage at the end of the night.

Eldridge played on every Seldom Scene album up until, and including Long Time… Seldom Scene in 2013, and his discography includes 55 albums. 

He and other members of The Seldom Scene backed Linda Ronstadt in a few numbers on her early, more country-flavored albums.

In 2023 Eldridge published the book, On Banjo – Recollections, Licks, and Solos by Ben Eldridge, with Randy Barrett who transcribed the solos.

Eldridge’s technique blends basic, driving Scruggs licks with chromatic and melodic playing. He described his style as something that, “just evolved from listening to a lot of different banjo players and stealing bits and pieces from everybody I could.” His influence on players who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s could hardly be overstated.

It would be remiss not to note the great pride Ben took in his son, Chris, who has reached the highest professional level as a guitarist, working with Punch Brothers and Mighty Poplar. As a youngster and a teen, Chris, nicknamed “Critter” by Tony Rice, would tag along with his dad to Seldom Scene shows.

Ben was also a true friend to most everyone in bluegrass music, and a great many beyond. Unfailingly kind to fans and banjo players who would pepper him with questions wherever he played, he shared his time graciously with all comers.

We have lost a true master of the five string banjo.

Bluegrass Today offers condolences to Ben’s widow, Barbara, and his older children, Paige, Ben, and Matthew.

R.I.P., Ben Eldridge.

A Discography 

Cliff Waldron And The New Shades Of Grass

  • Right On! (Rebel SLP 1496, 1970)
  • Traveling Light (Rebel SLP-1500, 1971) 
  • Just A Closer Walk with Thee (Rebel SLP-1505, 1971)

The Seldom Scene 

  • Act 1 (Rebel SLP-1511, 1972) 
  • Act Two (Rebel SLP 1520, 1973)
  • Act 3 (Rebel SLP-1528, December 1973)
  • Old Train (Rebel SLP 1536, 1974)
  • Live at the Cellar Door (Rebel SLP 1547-48, 1975) 
  • New Seldom Scene Album (Rebel SLP 1561, 1976)
  • Baptizing (Rebel REB 1573, 1978)
  • Act Four (Sugar Hill SH 3709, 1979)
  • After Midnight (Sugar Hill SH 3721, 1981)
  • At The Scene (Sugar Hill SH 3736, 1983) 
  • The Best of the Seldom Scene (Rebel CD 1101, 1987)
  • 15th Anniversary Celebration: Live at the Kennedy Center (Sugar Hill SH 2202. 1988)
  • A Change of Scenery (Sugar Hill SH 3763, 1988)
  • Scenic Roots (Sugar Hill SH 3785, 1990)
  • Scene 20: A 20th Anniversary Concert (Sugar Hill SH-CD 2501/02, 1992)
  • Like We Used To Be (Sugar Hill SH-CD 3822, 1994) 
  • Dream Scene (Sugar Hill SHCD 3858, 1996)
  • Scene It All (Sugar Hill SUG-CD 3899, May 16, 2000)
  • Creators of Urban Bluegrass (Cracker Barrel, 2002)
  • Different Roads (Rebel REB-CD 7516, April 3, 2007)
  • Scenechronized (Sugar Hill SUG-CD 4003, August 14, 2007)
  • Long Time…Seldom Scene (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40199, 2014)

Mike Auldridge

  • Dobro (Takoma D-1033, 1982)
  • Blues And Blue Grass (Takoma D 1041, 1974)

Mike Auldridge With The Seldom Scene And Friends

  • Eight String Swing (Sugar Hill SH-3725, 1982)

Phil Rosenthal

  • A Matter Of Time (Sierra SXCD 6021, 1983)

Jonathan Edwards & Seldom Scene

  • Blue Ridge (Sugar Hill SH 3747, 1985)

Various Artists

  • The Seldom Scene, The New South, The Country Gentlemen – Bluegrass – The Greatest Show On Earth (Sugar Hill SH-2201, 1982) 

Share this:

About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.