The Seldom Scene is closer to their 50th anniversary (2021) of making music than they are to their 40th, and they maintain relevance in the scene that by many accounts they either buoyed or helped create. They certainly nodded to bluegrass traditions at The 8X10 in Baltimore recently. But like so many musicians that followed them, The Seldom Scene borrowed from other genres such as country, rock, and pop – with ease and a deep familiarity.
The Seldom Scene began as musicians jamming in a basement in 1971, and as their popularity exploded, they maintained their day jobs and reserved music for the weekends. The band’s name, still one of the best in music, came as a pun after a friend told them they’d be seldom seen if they maintained music as hobbyists.
The Seldom Scene, at this point, are probably the longest-lasting band in the larger DC area — a quick Google search couldn’t name any others for me — having gotten their start at the Red Fox Inn and then The Birchmere, where they established a residency (and played there just this week).
Around that time, bluegrass experienced a resurgence in popularity, especially in the DC and greater DC area (this includes Baltimore, historically a bluegrass destination), if only because the city drew and draws plenty of Appalachian transplants. The Seldom Scene made a lasting impact on bluegrass as a whole around this time, moving vocals from the classic nasal twang of the olden days to something smoother and readier for the meaty, eclectic rock and country sound of their music. It sounds strange to many today — so much of the bluegrass in our world now has elements of rock, soul, pop, folk — but, in many ways, The Seldom Scene can be credited with birthing genre-busting bluegrass.
These days, The Seldom Scene is Dudley Connell (guitar), Lou Reid (mandolin/guitar), Ron Stewart (banjo/fiddle), Fred Travers (dobro), and Ronnie Simpkins (bass). Ron Stewart is the newest member, replacing stalwart Ben Eldridge — in fact, none of the original members remain (and many have been in the band longer than most of the originals)! But the band continues to bring the tightest three-part harmonies in bluegrass, with a new album coming out this year (they announced this during the show). Their most recent release, Long Time… Seldom Scene came out in 2014, with a few of those songs (including a personal favorite, “California Cottonfields”) being played in Baltimore.
Stream Long Time… Seldom Scene by The Seldom Scene on Spotify:
The Seldom Scene brought their show to the deceptively-sized 8×10, playing after The High and Wide and before The Plate Scrapers, a pair of local bluegrassy acts. As always, the band brought their unique blend of talent and joy to the stage, with songs ranging from “Bad Moon Rising” to “Muddy Waters” and “Paradise.”
Dudley smiled all night long in front of his mic, and everybody told stories, made wisecracks, and altogether looked like a group of comfortable friends who happen to be among the best musicians in the business. At one point, Dudley commented that they try to keep Lou from talking, and Lou then proceeded to tell an almost-cringey (not quite) story about his toy poodle, a veterinarian in the audience, and a certain stuffed llama. They talked about their years spent playing, mentioning that some of them have retired from their day jobs. (I learned that Fred is a retired firefighter!)
They gave a shout-out to The 8×10, sharing they thought they’d played the venue years before, but not recognizing the name. Fred said they figured it out when he looked up to his right during soundcheck and saw “The Funk Box” in the second-floor railings; a lightbulb went off in his mind because they had played The Funk Box (which The 8×10 management took over).
After riding the rails and highways through a host of stellar songs, the band moved into a special kind of round-robin introduction, with each member introducing another in a song-by-song pattern. The introduced member then featured on the song. A personal favorite of the night came when Ron introduced Lou as someone having played for 73 years and said Lou would sing a song as good as anyone alive in the world today. Lou then floated a startlingly beautiful and clear rendition of “Sweet Baby James” through the club, enveloping the audience in a time-traveling haze.
The Seldom Scene proved why they’re one of the longest-lasting, most well-built bluegrass acts in the world today, delivering a wild and heartfelt joy to an enthralled audience.
Here are a few photos of The Seldom Scene performing at The 8×10 on Jan. 24, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.