The word “legend” gets tossed around pretty casually these days, but it does apply to Mike Auldridge, who died of cancer Saturday morning, one day short of his 74th birthday.
Mike was a founding member of the Seldom Scene, a band that expanded the reach and style of bluegrass music and is still going strong 42 years later. But more importantly, he was a revolutionary with the resophonic guitar, clearing the way for, and mentoring, Rob Ickes, Jerry Douglas and other top players.
“The music industry lost a GIANT,” said former bandmate Lou Reid, who still performs with the Scene. “Mike was an innovator, a class act and one of the funniest people I have ever met. Anytime I saw him, we immediately went back to where we left off in the old Scene days. No one made me laugh harder than Mike. I will miss him so much.”
The Scene’s Dudley Connell noted that Mike “had the unique ability to place a metal bar on metal strings and strike them with metal picks and produce a pure and beautiful tone. It would seem an impossible task, but Mike accomplished this feat for over 40 years.”
Mike’s work with the Scene was a centerpiece of his accomplishment, but there was much, much more. He delivered nine solo albums, toured and recorded with Darren Beachley and Legends of the Potomac and was a first-call picker for Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, among many others.
He could have done much more, but decided against a move to Nashville in the early 1970s and stayed in the Washington, DC, area. He never looked back on what might have been. “Who knows?” he told The Washington Post with his trademark humor a few years ago. “Had we moved to Nashville, I might have wound up playing steel guitar in a band and dying in a plane crash.” There was some irony in that statement, too. Mike hated to fly.
Mike started to play at 13, influenced by Josh Graves. He won a Grammy, played in a band that is in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s hall of fame, received a lifetime achievement award from IBMA and was honored earlier this year with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
None of that went to Mike’s head. He was one of the most humble, down-to-earth men you could hope to meet – in any walk of life.
“I’ve never run across another musician who garners as much respect as Mike,” said Rob Ickes of Blue Highway. “I’ve met a lot of people who remember where they were when they first heard that guy play.”
Rob counts himself in that number. He was 13 years old, coming back from his first bluegrass festival, when his brother popped Mike’s first recording into the car stereo.
“I said, ‘What is that?’ My brother told me, and that night, I started playing as soon as I got home. It set me on a path. I said, ‘Whatever this is, I like it.’” For days, Rob fell asleep to the sounds of Mike’s record, and he hit the play button again as soon as he woke up.
Just before he moved into hospice care, Mike wrapped up an all-Dobro album with Rob and Jerry Douglas. That’s one I can’t wait to hear. Three masters, with Mike serving as the bridge from Josh Graves, who was his mentor, to Rob and Jerry. It’ll be out in 2013.
It’s easy, at a time like this, to be sad. But Mike, who always smiled, wouldn’t want it that way. A year ago, discussing his long illness, he told Rob: “I could go tomorrow, but I have no regrets. I’ve been able to play music my whole life.”
And, fortunately, we’ve been able to listen. Today, I’ll remember Mike Auldridge by playing some classic Seldom Scene tunes, being wowed by his oh-so-smooth picking and singing along with equally smooth baritone harmonies.
And Monday night, I’ll ring in the New Year listening to the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere Music Hall in suburban D.C. Somewhere, I think, Mike Auldridge will be smiling.