Mike Auldridge—Bluegrass Dobro’s Mr. Clean-Part I

The subject of my next two posts is Mike Auldridge, best known as the long-time dobroist with the Seldom Scene. (The term “Dobro” is a trademark now owned by Gibson. The generic name is “resonator guitar.” During his career Mike played Dobros as well as resonator guitars made by other builders.) When Mike first appeared on the bluegrass scene in the late 1960s, Foggy Mountain Boy Josh Graves was the top dobro player. His hot banjo-inspired picking and his edgy, cutting blues licks set the pattern that other players of the day like Craig Wingfield, Leroy Mack, Harley Gabbard, and Kenny Haddock all followed to some extent. Mike was also heavily influenced by Josh, even quoting some of Josh’s dobro solos on Mike’s early recordings, but he was the first to expand the dobro’s technical and stylistic range. From early in his recording career, Mike’s smooth style set him apart. Mike was enormously influential and the great dobro players who followed him, including Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, incorporated his innovations as they developed their own styles.

Mike Auldridge was born in 1938 and grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. As is often the case with musical innovators, he came from a musical family, which included a dobro-playing uncle, Ellsworth T. Cozzens, who had recorded with country music pioneer Jimmy Rodgers in 1928. Cozzens appeared on Rodgers’ recordings of “Dear Old Sunny South By The Sea,” “Treasures Untold” (the writer credit for these two songs lists both Rodgers and Cozzens, and Mike later recorded Treasures Untold), “The Sailor’s Plea,” and “Blue Yodel #2.” (It is likely that on these recordings Cozzens was playing a non-resonator lap style guitar with a slide.) Mike heard his uncle play at family gatherings and later said that Cozzens’ style was very old-timey, mostly a single note line that was like a harmony to Rodgers’ voice.

As a boy Mike liked the big band music of the day, and later began playing what was then called “hillbilly music” in a band with his brothers. Mike played guitar and banjo before settling on the dobro. From early in his career he was very focused on his music. In an interview he described how hard he and his bandmates practiced for their weekly program on local radio: “We only knew about four songs, but we played them about six hours a day during that week and we really had them.” Mike’s interest in dobro was deferred for some years while he focused on the banjo and because new dobros were not then made and used instruments were scarce. Mike eventually was able to find a used dobro and eventually switched over to that instrument full time.

Mike enjoyed Josh Graves’ playing very much but when he first heard Josh with Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper he didn’t realize that Josh was playing a dobro. Josh played the instrument very differently from Mike’s uncle, and the band called it an “old time steel guitar.” Mike said he imagined it looked something like an electric steel guitar but with ornately carved wooden legs, to fit with the “old time” description. He would sit in school and draw pictures of what he thought the guitar looked like. When he first saw Josh in person he was shocked to see that Josh was playing the same instrument that his uncle played.

In the late 1960’s after serving in the army and attending college, where he majored in art and minored in music, Mike began to play informally in the fertile D.C. area bluegrass scene. His picking partners included his brother Dave and many other part timers, including former Country Gentlemen bassist Tom Gray, guitarist and surgeon John Starling, banjoist and mathematician Ben Eldridge, disc jockey Gary Henderson, and other area musicians.

Mike made his first recordings in this period with a band called Emerson & Waldron & the New Shades of Grass. The group was led by banjoist Bill Emerson, formerly of the Country Gentlemen, and guitarist and singer Cliff Waldron. As the name implied, this group stretched the boundaries of what was then considered bluegrass, mixing traditional bluegrass with rock and folk songs. Although genre-borrowing of this kind is routine now, in those days it was innovative. The Country Gentlemen, also based in the D.C. area, had pioneered this approach beginning in the late 1950s, but Emerson and Waldron were one of the first bands to play rock songs in the genre that came to be known as newgrass. This band recorded “Proud Mary,” “Lodi,” and the first bluegrass recording of “Fox On The Run,” a rock hit for Manfred Mann that is now a bluegrass standard. Emerson rejoined the Country Gentlemen and the group continued as Cliff Waldron & the New Shades of Grass, with Ben Eldridge filling the banjo slot. They continued to sample the rock repertoire with songs like “Gotta Get A Message to You,” Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” “Wash My Hands In Muddy Water,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

Mike’s playing with this band already had the hallmarks of the style he made famous. Instead of hard-edged and bluesy, it was clean, smooth, lilting, and sweet, with flawless intonation and beautiful tone. His chordal playing was especially lush and full. He played straight bluegrass time but also, especially on slower numbers, he imparted a swing feel that may have derived from his early interest in the big bands. In its way, Mike’s style was as powerful as Josh’s, and like Josh, Mike could play at lightning tempos. Some 1971 festival recordings of the Waldron group are available at Fred Robbins’ site, and the excitement leaps out of the speakers. This was a hot band.

In late 1971, Mike and his brother Dave, who had also been in the New Shades of Grass, joined with mandolinist and singer John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and John Starling to form the Seldom Scene. The band’s name reflected the fact that the members had day jobs, limiting their ability to gig. Dave Auldridge left the band before its first recording, and the remaining five, Duffey, Starling, Auldridge, Eldridge, and Gray, became the first edition of the Seldom Scene.

The band’s first recording, “Act I,” was released in 1972. Also in 1972, Mike released the first of many solo recordings, simply called “Dobro.” This was not the first dobro solo recording; both Josh and Tut Taylor had recorded dobro albums under their names in the 1960s. But it was far and away the most influential bluegrass dobro recording ever. Next week’s post will pick up Mike’s story at that point.

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