Catching up with Ben Eldridge

When Ben Eldridge and his bandmates in the Seldom Scene followed J.D. Crowe and The New South to the stage at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival on Saturday, fans got to hear more than 100 years of five-string banjo experience back to back.

J.D., who turns 75 later this month, is retiring at the end of the year, after nearly 60 years of banjo work, including leading The New South since the mid-1970s.

Ben, who just turned 74, has played with the Scene since becoming one of its founding members 41 years ago, in 1971. Both he and the band are still going strong.

Forty-one years is an incredibly long lifespan for a bluegrass band.

But just as remarkable is the fact that this lineup – Ben, Dudley Connell on guitar, Lou Reid on mandolin, Fred Travers on dobro, Ronnie Simpkins on bass and all of them on vocals – has been intact since 1997.

There are more than a few bands that have been together for 15 years, but I can count major groups that have had the same personnel for all that time on one hand, and have a couple of fingers left over.

Ben said there’s a simple reason the lineup has been together for so long: “It’s just a fun band. We enjoy each other. We get along with each other. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it.”

The Washington, D.C.-area band, which grew out of a regular jam session in Ben’s basement, helped expand the reach of bluegrass beyond the traditional sounds of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Carter and Ralph Stanley. Today, the band is just as likely to play a genre-bending tune – Ben does a killer version of Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally – as they are a standard.

It’s been a few years since the Scene has been in the studio, and while Ben says there are ongoing discussions about a new CD, nothing is imminent.

So what does the future hold for this Bluegrass Hall of Fame band?

The question causes Ben to stop smiling for the first time since he reached the record table to sign autographs and chat with fans.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this. It hurts when I play,” Ben said, holding up a thumb. “It’s frustrating because I can’t do a lot of things I used to do.”

For the foreseeable future, though, Ben intends to keep right on doing what he’s been doing for decades. And the rest of the guys will be right there with him, delivering solid harmonies and an entertaining stage show that never seems stale.

Share this:

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.