Seldom Scene,
Long Time...
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2014)

Is it Seldom Scene or The Seldom Scene? Long Time... is the sixth of the band's recordings to grace my collection and the third to eschew the definite article. When it recorded "The Other Side of Town," which I wrote with Robin & Linda Williams (on Like We Used to Do, a 1994 Sugar Hill release), it was The Seldom Scene. Personally, for no reason I can articulate, I prefer just plain Seldom Scene.

I don't know if the new CD is a one-off or if Seldom Scene has committed itself to multiple releases from Smithsonian Folkways. The two seem a good fit. Folkways (as it was called back then) signed the Country Gentlemen, who modernized bluegrass in the late 1950s, and Seldom Scene updated the Country Gentlemen sound. Both bands had as one of their founders the legendary John Duffey, vocalist and mandolinist (d. 1996). Seldom Scene even got its name from another of the original Country Gentlemen, the late Charlie Waller, who, noting Duffey's phobia about flying, cracked that the new band would be "seldom seen." There is something to that. All of its members have day jobs, and their previous album, Scenechronized, appeared seven years ago (see my review in this space on 22 September 2007).

The band came together more or less by accident in 1971. Today only one original member, banjoist Ben Eldridge, remains. The current lineup consists of bluegrass veterans, all of them long in the tooth by now but still in splendid shape in all the ways that matter to a musical ensemble. Longtime fans will be a little disappointed, perhaps, that the guys are reworking familiar material, if sometimes from the Scene's appearances on its more obscure recordings. Herb Pedersen's "Wait a Minute" and Bill Monroe's "Little Georgia Rose" are particularly beloved from the band's repertoire, and show up here for another airing. Veteran Scene admirer and associate Emmylou Harris adds her never-unwelcome voice to a soulful reading of another favorite, Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind" (whose melody, I'm surely not the first to note, is pretty much indistinguishable from the one that carries the 1955 Porter Wagoner hit "A Satisfied Mind").

John Starling, founder and ex-member, contributes his stellar vocals to Virginia Stauffer's "With Body & Soul," originally cut by Monroe. The band's current lead singer is the tradition-bred Dudley Connell, who first rose to notice for his association with the late, still lamented Johnson Mountain Boys (also featuring Eddie Stubbs, now a prominent Nashville DJ, Grand Ole Opry announcer and country-music scholar). Connell demonstrates his versatility as he tackles songs by John Fogerty ("Big Train from Memphis"), John Prine ("Paradise") and the late George Jones ("Walk Through This World with Me"). That's not to mention "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," which Bob Dylan wrote for his Bringing It All Back Home in 1965. I'm not sure the arrangement of this last is quite definable as bluegrass, but it certainly is as lovely as any version you're likely to hear, and every bit as mysterious. The concluding cut, a gorgeous (mostly) instrumental reading of the 19th-century parlor ballad "Lorena," highlights Fred Travers's lyrical dobro style.

These days Seldom Scene doesn't seem so progressive or radical as it did in its early days. That's because so many next-generation bands heeded and absorbed its approach. What was once innovative, in other words, is now mainstream. Still, Seldom Scene remains an outstanding outfit, its sound always pleasurable, full-bodied and moving. I just hope we don't have to wait another seven years for the next album.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 June 2014

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