Groundbreaking bluegrass band the Seldom Scene takes a road trip to Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Washington, D.C., bluegrass band the Seldom Scene makes its Aspen debut with a concert on Saturday, March 26, in the Wheeler Opera House's Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music.

“Archives,” Dudley Connell answers the phone. Which is appropriate, as Connell works in the archives of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, where he has been transferring the organization’s collection of recordings to a digital format since the middle of 2000.

But that is simply a Monday-through-Friday job. Most weekends, Connell travels – mostly in the Southeast, but occasionally beyond – with the Washington, D.C.-based bluegrass quintet the Seldom Scene.

The band makes one of its longer road trips this weekend. The Seldom Scene makes its Aspen debut Saturday, March 27, in the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music, with Aspen’s Crowlan Ferlie Celtic Band opening.

Connell likens the band to a men’s card group. The guys get together mostly on weekends, and return to their regular lives once their gatherings are concluded. Though Connell and his mates do put good effort into their playing, they are not particularly driven in their pursuit, preferring to keep the tone on the light side.

Imagine what the Seldom Scene might do if it ever became a full-time gig.

As it stands, the band, commonly known as the Scene, carries a reputation as the finest vocal bluegrass band now playing. The quintet – comprising guitarist and lead-singer Connell, mandolinist Lou Reid, bassist Ronnie Simpkins, dobroist Fred Travers and banjoist Ben Eldridge, the lone member around when the band was formed in 1971 – is also regarded as one of the genre’s more adventurous outfits, spinning songs by Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett into bluegrass. Past Seldom Scene recordings have featured contributions from Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs. The band will be featured on the main stage at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Still, come the workweek, Connell digitizes music recordings to be contributed to the Library of Congress. Simpkins also works as an audio archivist. Eldridge is a mathematician, Travers a fireman. Only Reid works full time as a musician, pulling duty in the bands Longview and Carolina as well as the Seldom Scene. If the band can’t quite be described as seldom seen, they are far from ubiquitous.

“We could probably work more,” said Connell, understating the case. “But it’s nice to have some semblance of a normal lifestyle. We all have families.”

The tendency to favor the comforts of home over the rigors of the road have kept the Scene’s profile on the low side. Most tellingly, the band hasn’t released an album since 2000’s “Scene It All.” And with an embarrassed laugh, Connell explains that, though the Scene has begun work on a new recording, he doesn’t even care to guess at when it might be completed and released.

“That’s one we ask ourselves,” he said about the dearth of recent CDs. “But we’re a little unique in that we don’t tour and play all the time. Four-fifths of the band has day jobs, and that tends to get in the way. We started an album, then started touring so it got put on the back burner, and we haven’t picked it up again.”

If the Seldom Scene are not road warriors, neither are they garage hacks, guided by the “good enough for rock ‘n’ roll” credo. The members are all fabulous pickers: Check out Travers’ dobro licks and Reid’s mandolin picking on a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin,” from “Scene It All.” And where the band really shines is in the vocal department. Connell shares lead vocal duties with Travers and Reid, and the group’s four vocalists – everybody but Simpkins – have created a superb take on bluegrass’ tight harmonies.

“That’s where we put our efforts,” said the 48-year-old Connell, a native of Rockville, Md., whose mother sang and father played banjo, both semiprofessionally. “We put more effort into arranging the vocals than any other part of the music. Soundwise, the Scene’s harmonies are a lot more sophisticated than the Johnson Mountain Boys,” the twice Grammy-nominated band that Connell played in from 1975-94.

The Scene has also won applause for their wide-ranging repertoire. It has been a signature from the very beginning, when the band included long-running members Mike Auldridge, who left to form Chesapeake in 1996, and mandolinist John Duffey, who died the same year. The band’s first album, 1972’s “Act I,” featured takes on James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” in addition to traditional songs like “Darling Corey” and Bill Monroe’s “Summertime is Past and Gone.” Through the years, they have recorded Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour,” Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” and the Beatles’ “What Goes On.” “Scene It All” features versions of Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up,” and Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” which Connell calls the most difficult song he’s ever had to give the bluegrass treatment.

“Rhythmically, that’s such a far feel from bluegrass,” he said. “It’s almost got a funk feel to it.”

Among the tunes the Scene has added to its repertoire since its last recording are Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues” and “A Hundred and Ten in the Shade” from John Fogerty’s “Blue Moon Swamp” album. For Connell, who listens to more blues than bluegrass, everything from Robert Johnson to Johnny Winters, that wide-ranging repertoire is important.

“That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most,” he said. “You can bring anything to the table from any genre, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

The Seldom Scene doesn’t quite run on auto-pilot these days. Especially in the winter, when the bluegrass festival season shuts down and gigs are more scarce, the band has to pay close attention to its chops. If they go awhile between performances, they will get together before shows “to tighten the screws and get it comfortable,” said Connell.

But it’s a long way from Connell’s early days in the band. He knew the members of the Scene from the Washington bluegrass circuit, but was not accustomed to the material, the polished vocals, or John Duffey’s way of calling songs on the spot.

“To tell the truth, it was a little tough for me because I had to learn a lot,” said Connell of joining the Seldom Scene. “When you go out with the Scene, you go out without a net. They don’t plan a lot. John Duffey, when he was alive, would call the tunes right on stage. It was a challenge, but a good challenge. I had been playing the same type of music for 15 or 20 years. It made me practice again.”

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