Seldom Scene,
(Sugar Hill, 2007)

The Seldom Scene grew out of informal bluegrass picking sessions in banjoist Ben Eldridge's home in a District of Columbia suburb in 1971. The Scene was -- and remains -- a kind of evolutionary step beyond the first progressive bluegrass band, the Country Gentlemen, formed 14 years earlier. One immediate link was mandolinist/vocalist John Duffey, a founder and ex-member, but the new band sought to carry forward such Gentlemanly innovations as smoother, more urban sound and broader repertoire beyond those songs written specifically for bluegrass treatment. That meant -- as with the Gents (as they're fondly called) -- folk-revival material and country songs but also compositions by rock and pop artists, albeit the more rooted ones.

The sheer technical excellence of the band -- widely judged among the most accomplished and influential bluegrass assemblies ever -- through its various incarnations has kept its sound from growing stale. The music both honors tradition (even the most conservative bluegrass fans like what the Scene does) and takes it to fresh places where it always makes itself contentedly, if unexpectedly, at home.

In 2007 the Scene claims only one original member, Eldridge, and records more rarely (I was going to write "seldom" but caught myself) than formerly; this is its first new album in seven years. The absence of the brilliantly eccentric, larger-than-life Duffey, who died in 1996 and who may well be irreplaceable, is still felt.

Even so, Scenechronized assures us the outfit's current generation carries the banner proudly and capably onward. As any veteran listener has come to expect, the songs are consistently strong and creatively picked (in both senses) even when they're familiar ones. Back in the 1970s the Merle Haggard convict's lament "Mama Tried" was inescapable; just about every folk singer, bluegrass group and honkytonk band seemed to boast a version. I take it that Scene members decided that, the decades having rolled by, it was safe to revive it. They were right; it still sounds good. The often-covered "Tomorrow is a Long Time" has never been among my favorite Bob Dylan songs, or even close, but the Scene manages to put some urgency into it. As I would never have anticipated, it's a cut to which I keep returning.

Another happy surprise is John Fogerty's "A Hundred & Ten in the Shade" (which appears originally on his superb -- if perplexingly overlooked -- 1997 Blue Moon Swamp). The CD opens, as did Steve Earle's 1995 Train a Comin', with Earle's contrarian "Hometown Blues," a rejoinder to all those old country and bluegrass songs mourning distance between singer and homestead; this one is a kiss-off ("Nothing brings you down / Like your hometown"). The Scene delivers the sentiment with understated humor, following it with something as unlike it as one could imagine: David Norris's unblinking, seriously morose "Heart & Soul," performed shatteringly and perfectly.

I confess to a certain emotional connection to the Scene. It once covered a song, "The Other Side of Town," which I co-wrote with Robin & Linda Williams. It's on the band's 1994 Sugar Hill disc Like We Used to Be. Except for Eldridge, that generation of the band, which included the long-gone Duffey, Mike Auldridge and T. Michael Coleman, is no more. The band now consists of Eldridge, ex-Johnson Mountain Boy Dudley Connell (guitar, vocals), returning member Lou Reid (guitar, vocals), Ronnie Simpkins (bass, harmony vocals) and Fred Travers (dobro, vocals).

Let me put it this way: I'm glad you're there, boys. Now, all I ask is that you don't wait seven years next time. Seldom Scene is one thing, and a very good thing. Seldom heard is quite another.

review by
Jerome Clark

22 September 2007

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