Making the bluegrass Scene for 22 years

January 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It may seem hard to believe, but even after 22 years as one of America's foremost bluegrass bands, the members of the Seldom Scene still haven't quit their day jobs.

"We all look at [the band] as a full-time, part-time deal," says guitarist Dudley Connell. He points out that banjo player Ben Eldridge "is a mathematician and has been with the same company for 25 years. [Bassist] Ronnie Simpkins and I both work for the Smithsonian, and [dobro player] Fred Travers is a fireman.

"Basically, people are settled in," says Connell. "We're not kids anymore, you know? It's not the kind of thing where you get excited about the music and walk away from your job. You might do that when you're 20 years old, but it's harder when you're in your 40s."

Don't take that as Connell's way of saying that making music has grown less important to the group. If anything, the opposite is true, as became clear to the four of them after the death, in December 1996, of the Scene's de facto leader, John Duffey.

"The last year has been real tough for the band, with a lot of soul-searching," says Connell. "Because he was not only a wonderful musician and singer, but also kind of the personality of the band.

"But we really like to play together, and our musical goals really haven't changed very much over the years. We try to find material that's a little bit different, and approach the music in a little bit broader way than most bluegrass bands do."

Connell makes it all sound fairly modest, but anyone who has heard the Scene knows just how stunning the band's sound can be. After all, there aren't too many bands around that could take a song like the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic "Bad Moon Rising" and make it sound like an old hillbilly tune -- without in any way compromising the song's original intent.

"Our music really comes from a lot of different places," says Connell. "Just to give you a for instance, we're doing a song by an old blues guy named Muddy Waters, and the approach that we take on this song is more in line with something like Cream or somebody like that. It's a bit more rock-influenced, and I don't think you would have found that [in bluegrass] 30 years ago."

Even so, the Scene doesn't see itself as any sort of bluegrass vanguard. "We don't change for the sake of change," Connell says. "We just do material that feels good to us. We're not listening to the radio and looking for trends and things like that."

Maybe that's why he's less than impressed by talk that bluegrass could be country music's Next Big Thing. "I've heard that kind of talk for a long time," he says. "I think bluegrass is always going to be a niche kind of music -- much like jazz, or blues, or Cajun music. They tend to go up, then they come down.

"We have had boosts over the years, like when Flatt & Scruggs' recording of 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' was used as background for the chase scenes in the 'Bonnie & Clyde' movie, or when 'Deliverance' came out, and 'Dueling Banjos' made it onto the Billboard charts.

"I think the last big shot in the arm that we've had was the success that Alison Krauss has had in the country field. She's brought a lot of people to bluegrass." But even that, he suspects, will prove to be yet another passing fancy.

That's why the Seldom Scene has preferred to ignore trends and follow its own muse. "This band has always kind of marched to its own drummer, if you know what I mean," he says. "And I don't see any reason why it shouldn't continue to."

Seldom Scene

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.

WHERE: Gordon Center for Performing Arts

TICKETS: $22

CALL: 410-356-7469

SUNDIAL: To hear excerpts from the Seldom Scene album, "Dream Scene," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter code 6111. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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