his month, I started to peruse the archives and immediately stopped when I ran across this piece about The Seldom Scene. One of my favorite bluegrass bands of all time, The Seldom Scene get a nice introduction in this 1976 article by Bob Lawrence. I’ve added some links to videos so you can see the evolution of this great band, but since this article only takes us up to 1976, or the first five years of the band’s history, I’ve added to the end of it to update you on what’s happened in the past mere 45 years or so.

The Seldom Scene
Bob Lawrence
Bluegrass Breakdown, July/August 1976

The scene was New York University, adjacent to Greenwich Village’s camp and colorful Washington Square. The time was May 1976. Bluegrass promoter Doug Tuchman bustled about the auditorium coordinating sound checks, lighting, ticket sales, food and beverages backstage for the band–all the mountains of trivia essential to a successful production. As the doors opened, a sellout crowd consumed the front rows of seats like locusts, and quickly spread throughout the 750 seat hall. This was not Washington, D.C., the Bluegrass Capitol of the world. This was the Big Apple, and the eager, mostly student crowd awaited the arrival of a group of men some 15 or 20 years their senior who are quickly becoming legends in their own time. Individually, and as a band, The Seldom Scene have arrived.

Actually, they’ve all been around for years. Tom Gray (bass) and Mike Auldridge (dobro) played together in the mid 1950’s while still in high school. John Duffey (mandolin) and Tom shared nearly four years with the early Country Gentlemen. John Starling (guitar) and Ben Eldridge (banjo) attended the University of Virginia together, and as basement pickers were frequently to be seen in a Country Gentlemen audience. Ben tells of the time Tom Gray wore the wrong color shirt to the Shamrock and called his wife, Sally, to bring the right one by. He then asked Ben to stand outside on M Street and wait for the shirt, which he did. Tom gives out an embarrassed chuckle and doesn’t remember. Tom tells of the time Mike dropped out of their high school bluegrass band–he was playing guitar and banjo–because his girl friend (Elise, now his wife of ten years) was coming back from vacation and he didn’t feel he should spend so much time picking. Mike and Ben tell of going to a party at Tom Morgan’s house after a Country Gentlemen performance and feeling bashful about talking to the already legendary John Duffey. John describes the terrifying flight with his brother in a small airplane which led to his decision that flying is for the birds, and ultimately influenced his decision to leave The Country Gentlemen, who had just booked a tour of Japan.

The remembrances go on and on. But the memories only provide color and context for this phenomenon which exists in the today and the tomorrow of bluegrass music. Talent is something which is not constant. As a matter of fact, the product of real talent will never be static. Bill Monroe was innovating when he wrote “Molly and Tenbrooks.” The Seldom Scene do the tune only as part of a marvelous ten minute “Key of B Medley,” the idea for which popped up when the irrepressible Ricky Skaggs, sitting in at the Red Fox Inn, deviated from his intended verse on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and everyone else in the band threw in verses from other songs.

But we digress. In the ’60’s, John Duffey drew folk songs such as “Darling Corey” and Bob Dylan’s “Baby Blue” into the bluegrass regime. Now, with The Seldom Scene, the innovation continues. Duffey and Starling between them are busily bringing fresh arrangements to old songs, and more importantly, are introducing a steady stream of new material to an evermore discerning audience. Had The Seldom Scene presented that knowledgeable New York University crowd with a rehash of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, they would have met with some whoops and applause, but hardly the delirious acceptance with which those fans virtually inhaled their music, There appears to be a fine line here. The fans do not particularly respond to the electric “newgrass” sound, so the combination seems to involve acoustic creativity. And this is exactly the area in which The Seldom Scene is leaving most of the others way behind. Their next album (to be released in mid-summer) could easily become the bluegrass album of the year, and the strongest tune on it was written by Rodney Crowell (guitarist and singer with Emmylou Harris, herself a close Seldom Scene friend). “California Earthquake” tells of a huge tremor in the late 1800’s, and The Seldom Scene rendition is done with sensitivity and dynamics such as can send shivers up your spine.

Choice of material, though, however crucial to a band’s success, is largely a matter of “what you like”. In the case of The Seldom Scene, something else almost overshadows the tunes. Oh, those voices! John Starling, John Duffey, and Mike Auldridge constitute what is probably the tightest, most melodious trio in bluegrass: Duffey.with his incredible range and power, yet the sensitivity to blend appropriately on the soft, “relevant” songs. John Starling, whose fine voice can also be heard with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris; and Mike, whose resonant baritone is true and strong, and who is particularly skillful at blending with the other voices.

It would be a serious omission at this point not to include the vocal contributions of bassist Tom Gray, who knows every song (and almost every musician) around, and whose baritone and bass parts are above reproach. Tom is also possibly the best bassist in bluegrass. His playing is strong and has an edge to it, and he plays solos most bassists wouldn’t even attempt. If you think about it, each of The Seldom Scene is at or near the top on his instrument. John Duffey, not a technician a la Jimmy Gaudreau, Bobby Osborne, or Buck White, nonetheless “owns the neck” of his mandolin, innovates continuously, and never plays the same break twice. Many an aspiring banjo picker (not to mention some of the pros) can be found slowing his record player down to 16 rpm in an attempt to decipher an original Ben Eldridge lick. Ben is known among fans and musicians as Mr. Taste Mike Auldridge, with two solo albums, an instruction book, and dozens of fairly bigtime session shots under his belt, is making his third album in Nashville for Flying Fish Records, Session musicians include Vassar Clements (again), Lloyd Green (Mr. Pedal Steel), and Bobby Thompson.

It is surprising that the music of The Seldom Scene is so little known in California, although that may soon change. They travel very little, so Westerners will have to be content with their records (of which there are five to date, including a double, live album). It really is a shame that only Easterners (who are, however, by far the greatest supporters of bluegrass music) will be able to experience the thrill of a Seldom Scene performance. They are, to put it quite frankly, one of the finest groups in bluegrass today.


According to lore, Charlie Waller of the Country Gentlemen was responsible for the band’s name. Doubting that this band could succeed, Waller asked Duffey, “What are you going to call yourselves, the seldom seen?”

The earliest incarnation of the band included John Starling on guitar and lead vocals, Mike Auldridge on dobro and baritone vocals, and former Country Gentlemen member Tom Gray on bass. It’s probably not surprising that a band that has existed for 50 years has had a lot of personnel changes. Here’s a rundown:

1977: John Starling left, replaced by Phil Rosenthal.

1986: Rosenthal and Tom Gray left. Lou Reid replaced Rosenthal and T. Michael Coleman replaced Gray. Coleman played electric bass, not popular with bluegrass purists.

1992: Reid left and John Starling returned for a year.

1994: Starling was replaced by Moondi Klein.

1995: Klein, Coleman, and Auldridge left to form a new band called Chesapeake. At this point, only Duffey and Eldridge from the original lineup remained, and Ronnie Simpkins, bass, joined as did guitarist Dudley Connell.

1996: John Duffey died of a heart attack. Lou Reid rejoined.

2012: Mike Auldridge died.

2016: Ben Eldridge retired, replaced by Rickie Simpkins.

2017: Ron Steward replaced Rickie Simpkins.

2019: John Starling died.

That leaves the current configuration of the band:

Guitar / Dudley Connell
Mandolin, Guitar / Lou Reid
Banjo, Fiddle / Ron Stewart
Dobro / Fred Travers
Bass / Ronnie Simpkins

The original article reprinted above takes us through “Live at the Cellar Door”. There have been eighteen albums since, including one “best of”, one compilation from 1973-76, three live double albums, and a Smithsonian Folkways compilation.

This set of YouTube videos shows a taste of the evolution of the band:

Rider, 1979

Full set from Winterfest, 1988. Set list: Big Train from Memphis, Small Exception of Me, Say You Lied, Muddy Waters, This Morning at Nine, House of Gold, In Despair (and listen for some very funny patter and jokes towards the end)

Hickory Wind, undated but maybe early 90s?

Wait a Minute, 1996

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, 2008

Everybody’s Talking, recent recording

There is also a short Smithsonian Folkways short documentary about the recording of one of their most popular songs: “The Seldom Scene – Wait a Minute” (written by Herb Pederson). This video also features Chris Eldridge, son of founding member Ben Eldridge, and Punch Brothers guitarist/vocalist.

Final thought

It’s been a long time since 1976, and fortunately, I can confidently contradict two claims of the original article. First, The Seldom Scene are no longer “little known” in California. Second, as we all know, the West Coast has become extremely influential in the bluegrass world, with support that can match or beat that of our East Coast friends. I agree with the article’s conclusion, however; The Seldom Scene is still one of the finest bluegrass bands around.


An update: My last two columns have featured fine archival articles by Burney Garelick. I’m fortunate, through the power of social media, to have connected with Burney, who is happily living on the coast of Oregon. She is pleased that her old articles are being enjoyed by new readers, and remembers her years of involvement with the CBA fondly. Cheers to you, my new friend, Burney!

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