Newgrass Pioneer John Duffey-Part II

By the mid-1960s, John Duffey and the Country Gentlemen were riding high. In 1965, the band had a minor hit with a song that John Duffey co-wrote, “Bringing Mary Home,” which was a new version of the old story of the driver who picks up a hitchhiker late one night only to have his passenger disappear when they arrive at the house “where she told me to go.”

And in 1966, the band played at bluegrass promoter Carlton Haney’s second bluegrass festival in Virginia. Haney had held what was the first multi-day bluegrass festival in1965; in those days, bluegrass festivals were a rare novelty. Having played at Haney’s 1966 festival was a triumph for the band. But despite these successes, Duffey grew weary of the constant touring and low pay. Other members of the group seemed content to “save up to go on tour,” as Duffey put it, but he thought the group should be more selective in its bookings and demand more money for each personal appearance. In 1969, he left the Country Gentlemen and started a business repairing musical instruments. This work allowed him more time at home and a steadier income, as his business quickly grew.

But Duffey was much too talented not to be performing. For recreation he began playing informally with some part-time bluegrass musicians from the DC area, and out of these jams sessions came a new band. Duffey now had the opportunity to put into practice his “fewer but better paying gigs” idea. The new group’s name came from Duffey’s former Country Gentlemen bandmate Charlie Waller, who was aware of Duffey’s plans and said that the new band would certainly be “seldom seen.” In late 1971, the Seldom Scene was born.

The other members of the group were banjoist Ben Eldridge and dobroist Mike Auldridge, both from Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, Mike’s brother Dave, also a Waldron alum, who quickly returned to that band, bassist Tom Gray, who had played with Duffey in the Country Gentlemen, and a newcomer, singer and guitarist John Starling, an army surgeon. They arranged to perform one night a week at a local club; Mike Auldridge said it “was going to be our weekly card game.” Although all of them except Starling were veterans of other bands, the new band very quickly developed its own sound. Starling later called it “Washington DC music.”

John Starling was an important part of the band’s contemporary approach. His relaxed baritone was not high or lonesome, but smooth and engaging, the “best friend a songwriter ever had.” He covered a lot of stylistic ground but was especially at home with the country-inflected pop and folk tunes of the day. Starling could draw the listener into the story the song was telling, and his singing sounded so natural that the art in it didn’t show. His voice blended well with Duffey’s, Auldridge’s, and Gray’s in the trios and quartets. As he had with the Country Gentlemen, Duffey did most of the vocal arrangements for the new band.

The band’s weekly club appearances quickly became sold out events and in 1972, the Seldom Scene released “Act 1,” its first recording. This album showed the band’s willingness to cover good songs from other styles of music. In addition to their own arrangements of songs by Bill Monroe and the Carter Family, the band also recorded James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” the Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round,” Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” an old folk song, “500 Miles,” and two songs by country songwriter Paul Craft, a college classmate of Eldridge’s at the University of Virginia.

On the recordings that followed, the Scene remained equally eclectic, recording a handful of originals together with their arrangements of songs by the Eagles, Norman Blake, John Prine, early rocker Gene Pitney, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, the Grateful Dead, Herb Pederson (including two of their most famous, “Wait A Minute” and “Old Train”), George Jones, and more by Paul Craft, including an outstanding version of a melodic banjo instrumental called “Appalachian Rain.” The band also recorded two songs written by Phil Rosenthal, a guitarist and singer from Connecticut who joined the band later in the 1970s (more on this in Part 3 next time).

By the mid-70s, the Seldom Scene was enormously popular, and their fans included many who were not necessarily bluegrass fans. For those who might have found most bluegrass a little too rural, high, lonesome, or scratchy, the Scene’s records and shows, featuring polished bluegrass arrangements of many pop tunes familiar to urban audiences, were a good introduction. Their double album, “Live At The Cellar Door,” recorded in 1974 at one of DC’s top music venues, captured the band performing live at the height of its early success. This recording also captures the wit and humor of Duffey’s and Starling’s MC work, another important part of their success with city fans.

With Starling’s mellow country voice, the band’s elegantly arranged harmonies, and Auldridge’s smooth dobro, the overall effect was that of a country pop band as much as a bluegrass band. The presence of guests like Linda Ronstadt, who sang on two songs on the band’s fourth album, heightened this perception, as did the band’s version of “Rider,” a traditional song popularized by the Grateful Dead, which appeared on the Scene’s “Act 3” and on the Cellar Door album. “Rider” was an extended jam that gave Duffey and Eldridge a chance to stretch out on their instruments in the style then popular in rock. Among other things, the recording shows that Duffey continued to blaze new trails for mandolin players. He definitely was not playing it like Bill.

During the early years, the band members were able to limit their performances, as Duffey had intended. All the band members were originally part-timers with day jobs. For a time, Duffey continued his instrument business, Starling practiced medicine, Auldridge worked for a DC newspaper, Gray was a cartographer at National Geographic, and Eldridge was a private sector mathematician. The fact that four of the band members were professionals in fields other than music also appealed to their DC audiences, many of whom were professionals who perhaps daydreamed about moonlighting as musicians.

Gradually, however, the Seldom Scene became a full time band. The next post will conclude the discussion of John Duffey and the Seldom Scene, with whom Duffey remained until his death in 1996.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

2 Responses

  • Excellent article Andy. Duffey was fascinating in many ways. I was a HUGE fan of the Seldom Scene when they were active. And they were hard to see!

  • Thanks Dick. Me too. My first Scene shows were at the Birchmere in the early 80s. No question that John Duffey was the big boss man on that stage.

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