In the Presence of Titans

After a long night of picking and watching the sun come up on 2013, I was talking with a friend about the state of bluegrass music.

It was far too easy to fall into a funk.

Good bands led by talented musicians can’t make it, forcing those talented musicians to accept roles as sidemen in other bands to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Record labels face tough times, too. That makes good record labels harder to come by, and it means artists and songwriters have a harder time getting what is owed to them – what they’ve earned.

Songwriters work for a royalty of less then a dime per unit sold—often split two or three ways—on albums that rarely sell more than 2,000 copies.

I could go on, but you get the point. None of us on the provider side of the equation—performers, writers, publicists, publishers, etc.—got into this for the money.

In fact, I’m pretty sure a good songwriting buddy was only half joking with his response after finding out I had two cuts on an upcoming album by The Travelers: “Two cuts! Dude, you can supersize your Value Meal.”

Probably only once, though.

But providers are only one side of the equation. The other half of the formula, those of us who are fans of the music, are fortunate. Despite the woes outlined above, we fans will be looked on with envy by future generations of grassers, for one very big reason:

We live during the era of the titans.

Even the youngest bluegrass fans among us enjoyed at least parts of the reigns of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Mike Auldridge, who left us in 2012, but left behind music that will always ride on the wind.

And they’ll be able to tell tales of hearing Tony and Claire, Rob and Alison, Adam and Rhonda. No last names are necessary, to even the most casual fan.

Those of us who are on the older side of the actuarial tables go back even further on the bluegrass royalty tree, and some are lucky enough to have been there from the start, with Bill, Lester, Carter and Ralph, Curly, Mac, Cedric, George, Jim and Jesse, Bobby and Sonny and many more.

benAll of these thoughts, the dire and the upbeat, evolved from one event: the annual New Year’s Eve show by the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere Music Hall in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The Scene has been on the scene for 42 years, or for more than half of bluegrass music’s storied history. They started out playing once a week because they all had day jobs to make ends meet. Mike Auldridge was a graphic artist. Tom Gray was a mapmaker for the National Geographic Society. Ben Eldridge, the lone original member still in the band, was—and is—a first-rate mathematician.

Sound familiar? All but a relative few bluegrassers need to have a “real” job to make it.

The Scene also made waves by testing the boundaries of bluegrass to explore folk and even rock music. They took a lot of grief from purists who screamed, “That’s not bluegrass.”

That, too, should sound familiar. The Hillbenders, Mountain Heart, the Punch Brothers, Infamous String Dusters and others hear the same thing now.

But a funny thing happened on the way to revolution that the Seldom Scene helped lead. Bluegrass bent, but it did not break. The statues of the titans remained in full view, and their music remained available to those who wanted to find it, and to those who stumbled across it by accident after first running across one of the rule benders.

Today, I would argue, we have come full circle. We live in the era of titans, and for my money, the Seldom Scene is among them. A 42-year reign that links the founders of bluegrass to the present would be reason enough. But this isn’t a band that’s hanging around, playing out the string and just going through the motions.

scene2This is a band that honors it fathers. Dudley Connell would run through the entire Stanley Brothers catalog if given the time, and he and Lou Reid remain one of the best one-two vocal punches to be heard at any bluegrass festival. And the third voice in the Scene’s harmonies, Fred Travers, could sing the lead in many other bands. Listen to him sing Walk Through This World With Me just once and you’ll see what I mean.

But this is a band that also knows how to thumb its nose at tradition, and it has a ton of fun doing so. Ben won’t make anybody forget Ella Fitzgerald, but when he scats his way through Lay Down Sally, he brings down the house every time. And you can’t help but chuckle when a bunch of guys who are on the far side of AARP eligibility sing Down to Seeds and Stems Again.

They might not be rich in Wall Street terms. But they are rich in talent and tradition.

I know the Seldom Scene can’t keep playing forever. But as long as they ring in the New Year at the Birchmere, I’ll be there, thankful that I live in the era of titans.

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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.