As I mentioned last week, in 1972, Mike Auldridge released his first solo dobro recording, “Dobro,” and his new band, the Seldom Scene, released its first recording, Act I. Those recordings, and the ones that quickly followed, announced that a distinctive new voice had arrived.
The early Seldom Scene albums showcased a group of experienced bluegrass musicians who together had a different sound from that then prevailing in bluegrass. From the start, the emphasis was on the singing. The Scene’s lead voice was guitarist John Starling, who had a relaxed style of singing that owed more to Nashville than to Kentucky: smooth and mellow rather than high and lonesome. The band as a whole had a friendly style that was easy to listen to and widely appealed to people beyond traditional bluegrass audiences. The Scene’s contemporary sound was ideally suited to Mike’s clean modern approach to the dobro.
With the Scene, Mike was able to try his approach to the dobro on a wide variety of songs from outside bluegrass, including, “Sweet Baby James” (James Taylor), “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round” (The Monkees), “City Of New Orleans” (Steve Goodman), “Train Leaves Here This Morning” (Eagles), “Hello Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson), “Lara’s Theme” (Dr. Zhivago soundtrack), “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” (Mary Poppins soundtrack), “Faded Love” (Bob Wills), “Sing Me Back Home” (Merle Haggard), “Walk Through This World With Me” (George Jones), and “I Know You Rider,” performed as a lengthy Grateful Dead-inspired jam tune.
The Scene were all top-flight instrumentalists, but among all that talent Mike Auldridge’s dobro playing stood out. He continued to refine the sound that he first brought to the Cliff Waldron recordings. Because the Scene was primarily a vocal band, the dobro was heard most often backing up the singing and in short instrumental passages. In this role, Mike excelled in enhancing the overall feeling of the song without calling attention to himself.
In his solo instrumental recordings, Mike could show off a little more dobro flash. “Dobro” contained Mike’s iconic recording of “Pickaway,” perhaps his most famous recording. The tune was written by former Blue Grass Boy Vic Jordan and recorded by Jordan on banjo with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass (the band Lester formed after he and Earl Scruggs split in 1969). Josh Graves was then playing dobro with the Nashville Grass, and he also took a solo on that recording. Mike’s version is a dobro showcase-he used Josh’s break as his point of departure, and created something wholly his own, played fast and clean. On other tunes, Mike showed his explorer’s spirit, working out of alternate tunings (“Tennessee Stud”) and ranging beyond the standard dobro repertoire (“Greensleeves”). And lending his seal of approval to the proceedings, Josh Graves joined Mike for three tunes, including a slow and very bluesy dobro take on “House of the Rising Sun.”
Mike’s later instrumental recordings continued to push the boundaries of dobro technique and repertoire. He recorded Gershwin (“Summertime”), the Ventures (“Walk Don’t Run”), Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly”), the Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville”), and the Mamas and the Papas (“California Dreaming”). His own instrumental composition, “Spanish Grass,” highlighted his amazing speed and ultra clean picking style.
In the late 1970s, Mike began to play the pedal steel guitar and the eight string dobro on his own records and with the Scene. The extra strings (and pedals and levers on the pedal steel) allowed Mike to play chords and lush harmonies not readily obtainable on a conventional six string dobro (“With six strings and no pedals, you’re kind of stuck,” he once told me). He recorded an album with the New England band Old Dog, featuring guitarist/composer Phil Rosenthal and banjoist Bruce Stockwell. At about the same time, Rosenthal joined the Seldom Scene, filling the guitar/lead singer slot after John Starling left the band to pursue his medical career. Mike continued to expand the dobro’s technical and stylistic range. The Seldom Scene’s recording, “After Midnight,” featured Mike’s eight string dobro recording of the Benny Goodman tune “Stomping at the Savoy,” In 1982, Mike released an entire album of swing instrumentals old and new recorded on the eight string dobro, “Eight String Swing.”
Mike continued to perform and record with the Seldom Scene through the mid-1990s, and he also recorded additional solo albums, including “Treasures Untold,” featuring the song that his uncle had written and recorded with Jimmy Rodgers in 1928. After his stint with the Scene, he played with several other bands including Chesapeake, featuring several of his Scene bandmates, and toured with Lyle Lovett and Emmy Lou Harris. “Three Bells,” Mike’s last recording, with dobro virtuosos Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, was released posthumously. Mike passed away in 2012 after a long illness.
A few personal notes: I met Mike in the early 1980s not long after I bought my first dobro. I lived in Washington D.C. then, and one fall Saturday I drove out to a music store in Wheaton, Maryland to buy some dobro strings. When I asked the clerk about dobro strings, he said, “Why don’t you ask that guy right there?” Mike Auldridge had come into the store and was standing next to me at the counter. Shortly after that chance meeting, I began taking dobro lessons with Mike at his home in the Maryland suburbs. He was a wonderful teacher. His deep music theory background enabled him to explain in detail the “why” of what he was playing. Although friendly and welcoming, he radiated a musical intensity that was palpable. His playing was as creative, smooth, and sweet sounding at his home as it was on any of his recordings. In the years after I left D.C., Mike always greeted me warmly whenever I saw him at a show or festival appearance. His playing remains for me the most beautiful dobro music ever recorded.