Nothing lasts forever, but Ben Eldridge’s 44-plus years with the Seldom Scene seemed to come close.
His long run with the legendary bluegrass band came to an official end this morning, when remaining members announced his retirement and the addition of Rickie Simpkins to the lineup. But in reality, his decision was months in the making, a matter of if, not when, as back problems and issues with his left hand took their toll and kept him from performing regularly with the band that started out in his living room in 1971.
“It was a very hard decision to make, but I’ve been wanting to stop for a while,” Eldridge told me. “I’m 77, I don’t like traveling much anymore, and I’m not playing that well. My left hand is going south on me.”
Eldridge, the last original member of the band, is in IBMA’s Hall of Fame along with other founding members of the Scene.
He shared his decision with band mates Lou Reid, Dudley Connell, Fred Travers and Ronnie Simpkins – Rickie’s brother – at a show last weekend in Virginia, where he visited with the band. His final performance was New Year’s Eve at the Birchmere Music Hall in the Washington suburbs, joining the band on stage at the end of the night.
“It’s the end of an era,” Travers said. “We’ll miss Ben immensely. He’s one of the greatest guys you’d ever want to meet. He’s a great professional, a master of getting it done and having a good time along the way.”
Added Reid, “It’s really hard for all of us. Ben has been one of my idols since before I joined the Scene. We all love Ben Eldridge.” He went on to call Eldridge “one of the most underrated banjo players in bluegrass.”
Connell said he has always admired Eldridge’s playing, but gained new respect for him during his absence from the stage in recent months. “I’ve watched great banjo players struggle as they tried to capture what I now consider to be Ben’s genius,” he said. “I mentioned this to Ben last week and he told me he just played what came naturally to him. That’s the magic and pure genius of Ben’s playing. To him, it was easy.”
When it stopped being easy because of an uncooperative left hand, Eldridge knew it was time to keep a promise he had made to himself some years back. “I decided a long time ago, after hearing Earl (Scruggs) in his later years, that I wasn’t going to be like that when I started losing my stuff.”
Turnover in the Scene is about as unusual as an incumbent in Congress losing an election. The last personnel change came when co-founder John Duffey died unexpectedly in 1996 and Reid rejoined the band for his second stint. Travers, Connell and Ronnie Simpkins all joined the band in late 1995 and made their debut on New Year’s Eve that year at the Birchmere. In a fitting bit of irony, their 20th anniversary of joining was also Eldridge’s last official show.
Though saddened by Eldridge’s departure, the four remaining members are thrilled to have Rickie Simpkins join them. They expect to start work on a new recording project soon. “All of us in the band are truly excited to have Rickie on board,” Travers said. “It adds a whole new dimension.”
Eldridge signed off, too. “I’m real tickled about that,” he said.
Ronnie Simpkins may be the most excited of all, noting that he and his brother last played together on regular basis as part of the Tony Rice Unit. “While I’m really sad to see Ben go, I’m very excited to share the stage with my brother again,” he said. “Whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be magical.”
In addition to playing with Tony Rice, Rickie Simpkins regularly toured with Emmylou Harris. With both of those bands off the road, he’s looking forward to getting back to playing regularly.
“I’m just honored and thrilled and beside myself,” he said. “I’ve been putting a lot of time in trying to get these songs in my head.”
Anyone hearing Rickie Simpkins with the Scene for the first time is in for some surprises. The Scene has never had a regular fiddle player and now it is getting one of the best in the business. But he’s also accomplished on the banjo and can sing lead, baritone and tenor. With Ronnie Simpkins adding a bass part, the band now has five strong voices, opening up all sorts of possibilities.
While the remaining members are understandably saddened by Eldridge’s departure, they get to say goodbye this time without having to attend a funeral, which was the case when Duffey died unexpectedly 19 years ago.
“This is fun because we get to say thank you and tell Ben we love him to his face,” Travers said.
Part of their goodbye is a retirement party/tribute that is in the early stages of planning and will probably be held at the Birchmere. Eldridge admits getting butterflies when he thinks about it, but said he looks forward to playing if he can, as well as joining occasional Scene reunions of the current lineup with fellow founding members John Starling and Tom Gray.
He seemed especially pleased to hear that Rickie Simpkins was up to learning and performing Eldridge’s signature song, Lay Down Sally, made famous by rocker Eric Clapton.
“I’ve got to be there for that,” Eldridge said with a hearty laugh. “I’ll have to come out and do it with him, teach him how to dance like a spastic white guy.”
So there’s some good news here. We’re obviously going to be hearing a lot more from the Seldom Scene. And we haven’t heard the last of Ben Eldridge.