Newgrass Pioneer John Duffey-Part III

By the mid-1970s, the Seldom Scene was among the most popular bands in bluegrass, despite, or perhaps because of, their part-time status, which limited the number of their appearances. The band was still near the cutting edge of the music, although the next generation of bluegrass musicians was coming up fast. Pickers like guitarist and singer Tony Rice, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, and dobroist Jerry Douglas, and groups like the Bluegrass Alliance and the Newgrass Revival were pushing the boundaries of the music in many directions at once. Established bluegrass bandleaders like banjoist J.D. Crowe with his group the New South (formerly the Kentucky Mountain Boys), for a time including Rice, Skaggs and Douglas, were also performing songs from the rock, rhythm and blues, and folk repertoire. That band’s name change indicated the direction that their music was taking.

Hot young mandolin players like Gaudreau (who had replaced Duffey in the Country Gentlemen), Skaggs, David Grisman, Sam Bush, and from Japan, Akira Otsuka, of the Bluegrass 45, had absorbed Duffey’s stylistic innovations and were creating their own. As Duffey himself put it in an interview, others were playing in his style, but “some of them are playing it better!” Duffey never completely gave up his affinity for Monroe style mandolin, playing throughout his career chord-based runs that echoed Bill, although he might put his own stamp on them. But he sounded like nobody else, with an instantly identifiable style. A technique that I think he may have originated in bluegrass, noted by Akira Otsuka in the John Duffey oral history that I mentioned in Part 1, was to play ascending and descending passages on adjacent strings simultaneously. An example of this technique may be heard in John’s mandolin break on the Scene’s recording of Phil Rosenthal’s song “Brother John,” on Baptizing, the band’s gospel album. (Perhaps Frank Wakefield was doing something like this earlier; he and Duffey shared the explorer’s spirit.)

Despite the youthful competition, Duffey and the Scene remained bluegrass innovators. In 1975, the band released a two-LP set, Live at the Cellar Door. Rock bands were releasing double live albums at that time but so far as I know the Cellar Door album was the first in bluegrass. In addition to the Grateful Dead-style jam on “Rider” (mentioned last time), the band covered songs written or popularized by Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Dean Martin, among others. The set also included two beautifully written (and performed) songs by John Starling, “C & O Canal,” which Starling wrote for a public TV documentary on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, and “He Rode All The Way To Texas,” in which the singer finds solace from a breakup in a rambler’s song on late-night radio. Reviews of the Cellar Door set at the time were not wholly laudatory, with several taking exception to the band’s stage patter and one complaining about the audience!

Duffey’s musical innovation took other forms as well. In the early 70s, he performed and recorded with a mandolin that he built, using his own design. The mandolin looked very different from other mandolins. It came to be known as the “Duck” because of its flowing points or wings suggesting a bird in flight. Although Duffey played a traditionally-shaped Gibson F-style mandolin both before and after performing with the Duck, his use of such an unconventional looking instrument was further evidence that he was not afraid to bend bluegrass tradition. Akira Otsuka, a great admirer and friend of John Duffey who is a mandolin virtuoso in his own right, has that mandolin now.

The Scene’s sound continued to evolve. On The New Seldom Scene Album from 1976, the band was again joined by Linda Ronstadt, who sang on “California Earthquake.” This recording marked the band’s first use of drums and pedal steel guitar (the latter played by Mike Auldridge). And in 1977-78 came the band’s first personnel change. John Starling left the band and the DC area to pursue his medical career full time. He later recorded several solo albums, and briefly rejoined the band in the early 1990s.

Starling’s replacement was Phil Rosenthal, the Connecticut singer, guitarist, and songwriter who had earlier placed two songs with the band. In addition to his smooth baritone voice, Rosenthal added to the band his considerable songwriting and guitar flatpicking skills. Both Starling and Rosenthal appeared on the “Baptizing” recording, with Phil contributing three of his own compositions, including “Brother John,” mentioned above.

It was this version of the Seldom Scene that I first saw in the early 1980s when I lived in DC. Their weekly Birchmere shows never disappointed. In person, John Duffey was larger than life, and there was no doubt who the leader was. But everyone had his turn in the spotlight, and the band had a powerful presence and its own distinctive style. By this time the band had become more of a full-time group, with only Gray and Eldridge working outside music.

A number of excellent recordings followed, including “After Midnight,” which included two Eric Clapton covers, the title song and “Lay Down Sally,” which gave the band an opportunity for extended jamming. In 1985, the band recorded “Blue Ridge,” with guest Jonathan Edwards. Phil Rosenthal left the Scene in 1986, and Lou Reid (who had previously played with Doyle Lawson and Ricky Skaggs) took his place. Shortly after, Tom Gray left and electric bassist T. Michael Coleman joined. The band’s 1988 album, “A Change Of Scenery,” showcased the new members along with a more country sounding repertoire.

By now the Seldom Scene was an institution more than a trendsetter, widely recognized by taste-makers outside bluegrass. Two more live recordings followed, a 15th anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Center (!) and a 20th anniversary show at the Birchmere. The 90s brought more changes to the band’s lineup-the most significant departure was in 1995, when founding member Mike Auldridge left, to be replaced by dobro virtuoso Fred Travers, an Auldridge protégé who is still with the band. The Seldom Scene continues to this day, although the last remaining original member, banjoist Ben Eldridge, retired in 2016.

John Duffey passed away in December 1996. All of us who had the good fortune to have seen him perform with the Scene or earlier with the Country Gentlemen have a few favorite moments that live in our memories. Two of mine are local, first a night at Winterhawk in (I think) 1986. The Seldom Scene had a prime slot-Saturday night as dusk was falling. At the end of their set, the band performed the bluegrass warhorse “Fox On The Run.” It was fully dark by this time and Duffey soon had the entire hillside, at least 1,000 of us, singing the chorus. It was the largest ensemble I have ever been part of. The second, also at Winterhawk, this time in 1994, was another Saturday set. What stands out in my memory was Duffey’s blazing rendition of “Sunrise,” the mandolin instrumental he had recorded with the Country Gentlemen more than 30 years earlier. His performance had lost none of its magic in the interim.

As a post-script, in 2018, Smithsonian Folkways released Epilogue, a musical tribute to John Duffey, produced by Akira Otsuka and featuring a cast of top-flight musicians performing music that Duffey was known for. The recording nicely captures the spirit of Duffey’s music and is a good summation of what made John Duffey a giant of bluegrass.

6 Responses

  • Very nice article Andy. I’m glad you mentioned Linda Ronstadt’s recordings with the Scene. When it came out (and still today) I thought Linda’s high baritone on California Earthquake was the most perfect harmony and gutsy POWER that had ever been added to a couple of hairy-legged boys like Duffey and Starling. I don’t think I could have stood it if she went full-time bluegrass. Too good!

  • Thanks Dick. Mike told me an amusing story involving Linda Ronstadt. When she was in the DC area on a Thursday she would occasionally sit in with the band at the Birchmere. Once in the 70s, at the height of her fame, she showed up at Mike’s doorstep unannounced when he and his wife were out. The babysitter, a neighbor girl, answered the door and OMG standing there was Linda Ronstadt!!! Who knew that Mr. and Mrs. Auldridge had such a famous friend!

  • I saw John’s last show, at a triple header bluegrass concert in Englewood NJ (Del McCoury and Tony Rice also appeared). John seemed at the height of his powers. I believe he died 3 days later, at home. We were shocked of course. Reading the recent bio of John, it turns out he knew that he had heart problems and kept it secret from just about everyone. That bio is a MUST READ!

    Thanks for highlighting this bluegrass giant.

  • Hi Andy,
    Thank you very much for this wonderful article and I really enjoyed reading it. There are few things I want to mention: 1) I found this article by accident late last night while I was talking to Randy Waller (Charlie’s son and also a wonderful singer.) What a coincident! 2) Fred Robbins is a long time friend of mine and he’s been helping me with a lot of web stuff recently. I know he’s a member of HVBG but I had to tell him about your article this morning. So I had to give him a hard time:-) 3) Duffey made two Ducks — one for him and one for me. 4) Mike Sassano, thank you very much for mentioning me and my YouTube video! Take care.

  • Thanks Akira for your kind words and for explaining about the two Ducks. I have admired your music for a long time, ever since I first heard your recordings with Cliff Waldron, especially Daybreak in Dixie-wow! It’s great to hear from you. And thank you Fred for posting the link to the Epilogue/Grey Fox video!

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