The Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene evolved out of jam sessions that were held in the home of banjoist Ben Eldredge.  When the pickers realized that things were clicking, they aspired to “go public” in the most modest of ways.  Yes, they would record and yes, they would perform – locally, one night a week so as not to interfere with their day jobs, and yes, they would perform occasionally for festivals or concerts.  Were it not for the fact that the band was just so good, their plan to remain low key would have worked!

That the Seldom Scene emerged as a super group shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.  The talent was there.  All but one of the members – John Starling – had recorded previously for Rebel.  John Duffey and Tom Gray were former members of the Country Gentlemen while Mike Auldridge and Ben Eldredge played together with the duo of Bill Emerson & Cliff Waldron.  From 1972 until 1978, the Seldom Scene released seven recordings for Rebel.  The group’s first three recordings, simply titled Act I, Act II, and Act III, did much to spread the band’s fame beyond their weekly gig at the new Bethesda, Maryland, bluegrass hot spot the Red Fox Inn.

Spread over the three albums were 37 songs that displayed a selection of material from a number of diverse sources.  There was new material by songwriters such as Paul Craft (“Raised by the Railroad Line” and “Keep Me From Blowing Away”) and Wendy Thatcher (“Another Lonesome Morning”), covers of recent songs by popular artists including John Prine’s “Paradise,” James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” and Steve Goodman’s (by way of Arlo Guthrie) “City of New Orleans,” tunes made popular in then-recent movies (“Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins), and renderings of a few bluegrass standards such as Bill Monroe’s “Little Georgia Rose” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “I’ve Lost You.”  There were also some band originals, a few choice gospel tracks, a tribute to their hometown football team (“Hail to the Redskins”), and the signature song/tour-de-force “Rider.”

The release of 1974’s Old Train continued the magic, with standouts including “Wait a Minute” and “Walk Through This World With Me,” the Hank Williams classic “Pan American,” and a few nods to vintage bluegrass (Reno & Smiley’s “Maybe You Will Change Your Mind” and Bill Monroe’s “Traveling On and On”).  The album was further enhanced with guest appearances from Ricky Skaggs and Linda Ronstadt.

One of the most popular bluegrass album releases of the 1970s came with the group’s Live at the Cellar Door 2-LP set.  Recorded at a trendy nightspot in the Georgetown section of Washington, D. C., the group sailed through 22 songs and tunes that make up the album.  A few were re-makes from earlier Scene LPs, but the majority of the material was new to the group.  Charged by the enthusiasm of a decidedly energetic audience the band gave an all-out performance which prompted one review to note, “even the dialogue between number is entertaining.”

The Seldom Scene closed out their Rebel years with two final LP releases.  The New Seldom Scene Album was released in 1976 and contained several notable tracks.  Chief among them were Rodney’s Crowell’s “California Earthquake,” the Stanley Brothers’ “If That’s the Way You Feel,” and two traditional gospel-flavored pieces:  “Paradise Valley” and “Pictures From Life’s Other Side.”  The group’s 1978 Baptizing album, their first and only all-gospel release, ushered in the first change to original line-up of the group.  Guitarist and lead vocalist John Starling left to devote more time to his medical practice; he was replaced by Phil Rosenthal.