The Seldom Scene is 40!

The Birchmere is hosting a 40th Anniversary celebration for the much-heralded Seldom Scene on November 26.

In what the Birchmere bills as “an evening with The 40th Anniversary Celebration with very special guests Mike Auldridge, Tom Gray and John Starling” America’s legendary music hall honors the band that “made” the original Birchmere venue all those many years ago when it played there every Thursday evening. In truth, growth for both was probably mutual.

The present line-up consists of Ben Eldridge, the only remaining original member still in the band [banjo], Dudley Connell [guitar], Fred Travers [resophonic guitar], Ronnie Simpkins [bass] and Lou Reid [mandolin].

I am sure that many present at the concert will be thinking of John Duffey, the larger than life mandolin player and lead and harmony vocalist and founder member of the Seldom Scene, who died on December 10, 1996.

According to Eldridge, Rickie Simpkins, Chris Eldridge, Jay Starling and Akira Otska will also be there to join in the festivities.

Ben Eldridge, now 73 years young, continues …..

“I can’t really believe how much time has passed since that first night (November 1, 1971) at the Rabbit’s Foot in Washington D.C. Wow, were we awful! The Newgrass Revival boys were in there that evening, much to our chagrin. For years I kept an empty cigarette pack in my banjo case that Courtney Johnson stuck in it that night.

Also, I never dreamed that we’d still be doing it 40 years later. It’s been an incredible ride. It was a real privilege to have stood next the great John Duffey for some 25 years. He was truly one of a kind and he taught us all a lot. He is still spiritually a member of the band. It’s also been a privilege to have played with so many talented band-mates over the years. It’ll be fun to take the stage with them one more time.

I think one of the things that I am most proud of is that we have been able to introduce people to bluegrass music who normally would not have discovered it. This often leads to their further exploring the music, hearing the great older and more traditional stuff, and getting hooked on it like the rest of us. That really tickles me, and I hope it will be major part of our legacy.

I’d like to thank all of the folks who have stood by us over the years. It really means a lot to all of us that people still come out to our shows, buy our CDs and generally seem to enjoy what we do. And it’s still fun after all these years!”

And Tom Gray relates how the Seldom Scene started playing at the Birchmere …

“We had been playing one night a week at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda Maryland. It was a neighborhood bar which had occasional live music.

Before the Scene, I had played there with the Emerson-Waldron Band. It was Walt Broderick, the owner of the Red Fox, who recommended us, The Seldom Scene, for our first gig, at another club called the Rabbits Foot, in D.C.

Anyway, after we had played at the Red Fox for six years, we were asked to play one night at the Birchmere, then located in Arlington, Virginia. The Birchmere was larger and seemed more serious about music, so for a while, we alternated between the Red Fox and the Birchmere. Then, in 1977, right after Phil Rosenthal joined the band, we received an offer from the Birchmere that we couldn’t turn down to play there exclusively. From that point on, until after I left the band in 1987, we played the Birchmere every Thursday night.

Some of my neighbors in Maryland, where I live, were angry with me for abandoning the Red Fox in Maryland in favor of the Birchmere in Virginia. One banjo picker actually came to my door and said sarcastically, ‘Thanks a lot. You’ve just given the kiss of death to the Red Fox.’  Indeed, the Fox went out of business shortly thereafter.

That original Birchmere had seating for 150. Soon, it moved to larger quarters in Alexandria, Virginia, where 300 could be seated. After I left the Scene in 1987, the Birchmere moved up the street to its current location, where it seats 500. That larger capacity made it almost impossible for the Scene to fill the house any more.

Soon, they were down to occasional dates, maybe four times a year, which continues to today. The Birchmere ceased to be primarily bluegrass, and became a nightclub for all kinds of popular music.”

During the past 40 years the Seldom Scene has recorded several albums starting with Act I (for Rebel Records, SLP 1511, 1972) with the latest Scenechronized (Sugar Hill Records CD 4003) released in August 2007.

Among these albums are Live At The Cellar Door (Rebel SLP 1547-48, CD 1103), 15th Anniversary Celebration (Sugar Hill SH 2202) and Scene 20: 20th Anniversary Concert (Sugar Hill SH-CD 2501/02) each of which capture the band, in their various configurations, delighting their audiences with hot licks and superb singing.

More details about the November 26 show can be found on the Birchmere web site.

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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.