John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life: Featuring the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and Washington DC 

John Duffey is one of the biggest characters in the 70-year history of bluegrass music, larger than life; physically imposing with a voice that covers the whole range required for the four standard vocal parts, and a style of mandolin playing all his own. He even had a mandolin all his own; the hand-built wing-shaped “duck.”

Stephen Moore and co-author G.T. Keplinger have taken on the task of transferring Duffey’s characteristics, sometimes outrageous, onto the printed page as well as clearing up the many misconceptions that people have of Duffey; separating the myth from the man. 

John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life is both a chronological and episodic biography of Duffey, his fellow musicians, his family and friends. “We also found the first stand-up bass player Duffey ever worked with—Dr. Sterling Ellsworth—now a clinical psychologist,” Moore reveals. It is also of the period when Washington, D.C. was the Capital of bluegrass music. 

Tom Gray has written the foreword, and a Duffey genealogy has been compiled by Robert Kyle. 

Extending to 420 pages, there are chapters relating to the genesis of the Country Gentlemen, John’s transition to The Seldom Scene, the views of The Birchmere’s Gary Oelze; a chapter of memories by Duffey’s sole, biological daughter, Ginger “Sam” Allred; and an interview with British bluegrass music singer/song-writer Tom Travis, who promoted a concert in England featuring The Seldom Scene.  

The book includes a listing of every time that Duffey recorded also. 

It features 50 rarely seen and previously unpublished photos, including many taken by Carl Fleischhaur. Others who have supplied pictures and memories include Ginger K. Allred, Ben and Barbara Eldridge, Bill Emerson, Tom Gray, Becky Johnson, Penny Parsons, Phil Rosenthal, Peter Wernick, Sterling Ellsworth, G.T. Keplinger, Bluegrass Unlimited (Linda Shaw), and many more.

Bluegrass Today spoke to Moore about John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life: Featuring the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and Washington DC.   

What prompted you to write a book about John – what were the circumstances – and when was that, please? 

“It was the early 1980s when I, too went to the Birchmere often to enjoy the Scene. It took me about a year to get some small rapport with John. I was introduced to him as a writer, but eventually, he found out I was a musician, so that helped our relationship. In 1984 I asked him for an interview for a newspaper article on bluegrass in the DC area I was writing. He surprised me by agreeing and invited me to his house.

The offstage Duffey was almost a different person. No arrogance, and often humility. We hit it off, and he was very candid and friendly. I ended up with 180 minutes of our conversations on tape, and now that I’ve thoroughly researched him, I’m sure it is one of the best interviews he did. These tapes are the foundation of our book. 

He had a fascinating life. In addition to his music and humor, I think readers are going to be very surprised at his complexity. For example, it was more important for John to pitch for his adult softball team than perform at the White House for Jimmy Carter. The Scene played without him, and Carter was so disappointed he invited them back for a second time so John could be there. 

During our interview, he spoke about how much he appreciated Bob Dylan’s music and his attempts to understand the lyrics. Yet, when Dylan’s driver called the Birchmere to let them know that he was driving Bob to see the Scene perform one night, John said, ‘Tell Mr. Dylan I have some cold beverages waiting for me at home and if he’s ever in the neighborhood a little earlier then I’ll be glad to play for him.’ The Scene had finished their second show and John wanted to go home. I got this story from Gary Oelze, the Birchmere owner, and confirmed it with Mary Beth Aungier, the waitress who took the phone call. According to Oelze and Aungier, it would be years after John’s death that the other Scene band members found out that Dylan wanted to see them play. John never told them about the call.”

So, when did your newspaper article turn into a book?

“The Duffey book idea came about as I was finishing my last book in 2016, and I have been seriously working on this bio since last October [2017].”

What are the main elements of John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life? 

“The foundation of the book is that all-day 1984 interview I did with John at his house. It is arguably the most personal and revealing interview he ever did. There was joking (like most of the existing interviews I’ve seen) but also serious and revealing comments about himself and his bluegrass life. 

My co-author G.T. Keplinger and I have augmented that interview with commentary from nearly 50 others (Bill Emerson, Bill Blackburn, Phil, Ben, Starling, Gray, Len Holsclaw, etc) including interviews with now-deceased associates like Mike and Dave Auldridge, Charlie Waller, Dick Cerri, George McCeney, et al.”

G.T. Keplinger, historian and filmmaker who produced the film Scene 35, documenting the first 35 years of the Seldom Scene, shares a little about his involvement in the writing the book …..  

“Between 1999-2006 I shot several interviews—30 or so—with Seldom Scene band members and friends for a documentary on The Seldom Scene that I did for my MFA thesis film. Working from my unpublished interviews and my own conversations over the last 20plus years with band members and friends I collaborated with Steve on the book. 

I had posted some ‘work in progress’ clips from my Seldom Scene documentary online and Steve contacted me about collaborating on a book about John Duffey. We began working together in early 2018. It truly has been a great collaboration.”

John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life: Featuring the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and Washington DC is to be published by Booklocker in early April 2019, and will be available from recognized book outlets.

It will be issued initially in both a softcover edition, priced $19.95, and with a hardback, costing $34.00, with an e-book to follow later.  

Here is a very brief glimpse at the reason why John Duffey left the Country Gentlemen, as discussed with Steve Moore   


Complete details can be found online.

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.