Ben Eldridge has said that The Seldom Scene “it started sort of like our Monday night card game.” All the members had careers. Eldridge was a mathematician, John Starling was a medical doctor, Tom Gray was a cartographer for National Geographic magazine. In the very early years they met each week in Eldridge’s basement in Bethesda, Maryland.
Everything about their career recording and performing seems reluctant. They were asked to perform, which lead them ultimately to The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandira, Virginia, where their shows became the stuff of legend. Emmylou Harris has talked about seeing the band at the Birchmere. Indeed, anyone who did seems, invariably, to discuss it as one of the high points of their lives.
The band was popular because of the level of musicianship, but also because of the approach. While Eldridge is careful to note that they didn’t stray too far from the traditional sounds of bluegrass, they nevertheless cast a much wider net in terms of material than most bluegrass bands did at the time. “When we started, I think we were sort of trendsetters,” says Eldridge. “Back in the 70s most bluegrass bands were playing songs about cabins and mountains and that kind of stuff … but we would steal stuff from anybody we could—James Taylor, we used to do one of Elton John’s songs called “Country Comfort”—just about anything that would come along.”
There were, for the time, a very rare breed: they were a band that didn’t tour until relatively recently in their career, wasn’t formed in the south, played exclusively in an urban setting, and appealed to an urban audience as much as they did a rural one. And they were funny. Some of the early album covers were photographed with their backs to the camera, or with the stage lights lighting only their feet.
“Little Georgia Rose”
“Walk Through This World With Me”
Given all their popularity, they also always kept their day jobs. The one concession they made was to record, which they thankfully did with some frequency. Their latest, Long Time… Seldom Scene is their 21st release in a recording career that spans more than four decades. The album is, in many ways, a tribute to their career as a band, comprised of songs that they’ve either recorded before or have performed often. In that regard, it’s a fresh tour through some of their musical history.
Emmylou Harris is featured on a song that she made a hit, “Hickory Wind,” though the best tracks are those which feature just the band on their own, as on “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and “I’ll Be no Stranger There” which has some delightful a cappella vocal work. If there are any weak spots, they are actually “Hickory Wind” as well as a cover of John Prine’s “Paradise.” In any case, there are enough high points which, actually, occur when they are sticking closer to the traditional bluegrass songbook, as in “Little Georgia Rose.” The album ends with the Civil-War era “Lorena,” which recalls John Hartford, if only because it’s hard not to. In any case, it’s beautiful ending for the collection.
In today’s world, The Seldom Scene are no longer stretching any boundaries (though Chris Eldrige, Ben’s son, certainly is as a member of Punch Brothers) and, perhaps, it’s hard to see that they ever did. What they have done, though, is produce one of the most honest, pristine, and delightful bluegrass albums that you’re likely to hear this year.
Smithsonian Folkways Records