An Interview with John Starling, Founding Member of the Seldom Scene
The Seldom Scene is one of bluegrass music’s most influential bands, and a vital part of Washington, DC’s vibrant bluegrass history. This year, the band is celebrating its 40th anniversary. We got the chance to talk with guitarist and vocalist (and ENT surgeon) Dr. John Starling, one of the band’s founding members (he’s now retired), about the Seldom Scene, DC bluegrass, and the time Linda Ronstadt crashed at his house.
Juli Thanki: As one of the Seldom Scene’s founding members, it must be neat to see them celebrate their 40th anniversary.
John Starling: Yeah, I’m glad they’re still at it!
JT: When did you first start getting interested in playing bluegrass?
JS: My first guitar was an electric guitar; does that tell you anything about bluegrass? (laughs) I fiddled around with [bluegrass] a little bit, and then when I was in med school at the University of Virginia, we used to have these pickin’ parties where I met [Seldom Scene banjo player] Ben Eldridge and Paul Craft, who wrote a lot of songs for the Seldom Scene. He was a senior at UVA, or maybe he had just finished and still liked to hang out there. Ben had finished but he would occasionally come back on the weekends, and we’d get together and play some music. That’s how I got to know these people, and when I got to Washington to do my internship in 1968, we used to have pickin’ parties in Ben’s basement. I spent 1969 in Vietnam, then came back and did a year of general surgery in North Carolina.
I heard a rumor that John Duffey had left the Country Gentlemen and he was just working as a luthier, and then I heard a rumor that this band was going to be put together with Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, me and John Duffey. That was just a rumor, but we kept hearing about it, so we finally called up Duffey, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard the same rumor.” (laughs)
So we got together and played a little bit, and…we called [bassist] Tom Gray. Then we started playing once a night just for fun. That was the whole idea: keep your day job, just have fun. It was just a hobby, but the head of Rebel Records realized that John Duffey was saleable. He came to hear us at a club and said, “You’ve got to start making records.” I think the first record we made, Act I, was a two-track record. The engineer owed Duffey some money or something, so it only cost us around $300 to make the record. After that, Rebel Records just made us make a record every year, which was the only time we would practice because John Duffey had bowling nights, so he didn’t want to practice except when we were going into the studio. Of course, we practiced once a week when we played, which means we made a lot of mistake.
The first few nights we played a place called The Rabbit’s Foot on Wisconsin Avenue just over the District line. One night we were playing there and the Redskins were on Monday Night Football. There was a TV set between the audience and us with the game on, and this young man, who was a friend of ours—about the only people who came to see us were our friends and wives—came in and asked if they’d please cut the TV off while we were playing and they refused and kicked him out. We heard about it and left right behind him. Ben and I went over to the Red Fox to have a drink and watch the rest of the game. We talked to the owner of the Red Fox Inn and asked if he’d like to have the band play there once a week, which is how the whole Red Fox [gig] got started.
I think the man who caused us to leave the Rabbit’s Foot and start at Red Fox suggested, about a year later, that I go downtown to the Childe Herald and hear this young folksinger named Emmylou Harris.
JT: Tell me about that first time you heard Emmylou sing.
JS: We went down to see her play, and Ben got to know her a little better. I think she started playing one night a week at the Red Fox too. Here’s my favorite story: she was playing at a place called Clyde’s in Georgetown, and the Flying Burrito Brothers were playing at the Cellar Door. During their break, they decided to walk over to Clyde’s and have a drink, because they didn’t serve any alcohol at the Cellar Door. They happened to be there when Emmylou Harris was there. She was a folksinger; she said she only knew one country song, and she just happened to do it while they were there. Looking back, Emmylou said she remembers [them], because they were talking while she was singing (laughs).
Gram had been talking about starting a new band and said he needed a girl singer, so the [Burrito Brothers] said, “You should know about this young lady; she’s really good.” They went back to the Cellar Door and started talking about it, but they had no idea who [Emmylou] was, or what her name was or how to get in touch with her. It just so happened that this girl who babysat for Emmy at the time was there, and she happened to hear the conversation and said, “I know exactly who that is, and I can give you her phone number.” About two weeks later, Emmylou answered the phone and Gram said, “This is Gram Parsons. Some friends of mine heard you play and I wondered if you’d like to come out and join this band I’ve put together in California.” She put her hand over the phone and asked her boyfriend, who was her bass player at the time, “Who’s Gram Parsons?” He said, “Say yes.” And the rest is history.
JT: And we owe it all to the babysitter.
JS: Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
JT: What led you guys to reach out to non-bluegrass artists like Linda Ronstadt?
JS: When Emmy was playing with Gram Parsons, they played a show together down in Texas. That’s how Emmy and Linda met. Linda came up to play at the Cellar Door; I think she was there for two or three nights. I went to see her one night because I was a huge fan, as were a lot of people at the time. Emmy was there too, and she said, “Tomorrow night there’s this band playing at the Red Fox,” so Linda came to see us play. Ben and I lived on the same block in Bethesda, about three blocks from the Red Fox, so after the shows we—not John Duffey, but the rest of us—had a habit of going to Ben’s house or my house and we’d talk and pick until three or four in the morning. Then I’d get up to go make rounds at 7:30, my poor patients.
Emmy came over with Linda, and Linda said, “Out in California, nobody just gets together and plays like this. This is fun.” We had a good time and thought that was going to be the end of it. The next night, I get a phone call: “This is Linda Ronstadt. Are you all going to be playing again tonight?” I hadn’t planned on it, but I said, “We’ll put something together.” So she came over after playing the Cellar Door, and I called up Ricky Skaggs to come over. We had a little pickin’ party and that started a friendship that lasted a long time.
JT: And she appeared on your Old Train around that time (1973)?
JS: That was maybe a year later. She got sick on the road with a fever or the flu and she had two more shows, in Washington and New York. She called me up and said “I know you’re a doctor, so can I come stay at your house?” She came over there and it just so happened we were in the studio doing Old Train at the time. After a few days her fever went away, so she started coming over to the studio with Lowell George, who was on the road with her at the time because Little Feat had broken up for a period of time. He came over to the studio too, and she sang on the record. She recorded [Paul Craft’s] “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” which she put on her next album, Heart Like a Wheel. George Massenburg was the engineer…was living in Paris at the time and Rebel Records flew him back for a two week period to record Mike Auldridge’s second solo album and Old Train. It was just fun to watch it all come down.
JT: The Birchmere is such an important part of the DC-area bluegrass scene, and your shows really put it on the map, right?
JT: We started playing one night every other week there, alternating with the Red Fox. It turns out that my last show with the band was with the Red Fox. As soon as I left the band, they quit playing the Red Fox altogether.
JT: Why did you leave the Seldom Scene? Was it mostly to focus on your medical practice?
JS: I had finished my residency at Walter Reed, so I owed the Army three years. I was at Fort Belvoir and I had just gotten married. I had to decide what I was going to do. At that point, John Duffey wouldn’t fly, and I wasn’t really aware that anybody cared that much about the Seldom Scene. That was the best part ever: we didn’t know we were all that popular!
It was a very tough decision to make. I really enjoyed playing the music, but I spent all this time trying to become a doctor. John Duffey said I was going to leave the band and practice “Ear, Nose, and Wallet” (laughs). I had a long talk with Mike about it and decided that it was the best time to move on. I was so glad when I got to go back with them in the ‘90s.
JT: It seems everyone affiliated with bluegrass in this town has a John Duffey story that may or may not be embellished a bit. What was he really like?
JS: [With the Country Gentlemen] I think he’d developed a little bit of cynicism about the music business and he decided he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to be a luthier. But after he was out of [music] for a while, his wife suggested to him, “I know you like doing music. Why don’t you start doing it just for fun?” And that was the whole idea behind the Seldom Scene. He didn’t want it to be John Duffey And—he just wanted it to be a band that he could be part of that had a name that didn’t involve him. He was basically a very shy person. You wouldn’t know it to see him onstage. He didn’t drink except when we would get ready to go play onstage. He’d say, “You can’t go out there alone, guys.” So he’d have his little whiskey sours; he had a kit that he’d bring and he’d make a whiskey sour. He’d have maybe one drink and then go out and play. If we were playing a festival and the band before us was taking too many encores, he’d say, “They better hurry, or I’m going to be over-adjusted.”
To me, John Duffey was the Country Gentlemen and he was the Seldom Scene. He was the reason we got to make records. He just wanted to play music and have fun being part of the group.
We all had different worldviews and everything. I can remember during election season we’d get backstage and just laugh at each other’s political views—they were so different. Then we’d go out and play music together. We didn’t care.
JT: The Seldom Scene was really something of a groundbreaking band. How did you all approach making bluegrass music?
JS: I can remember growing up listening to WRVA, the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, and WLAC in Nashville, which played rhythm & blues. Occasionally I’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry; I was willing to listen to Little Jimmy Dickens and all this stuff I didn’t even like that much just to hear Bill Monroe come on one time. I loved Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs; after they left the Blue Grass Boys and formed their own group, people were calling them a bluegrass band, Louise Scruggs would say “Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs are not a bluegrass band.” Because it was all related to Bill Monroe.
I think, ultimately, if you make a record and nobody knows what bin to put it in, you’ve succeeded. John Duffey used to say, “Be different at all costs.” Ben Eldridge and I were listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and I was listening to Grateful Dead. When we got ready to make a record, we’d try to find original tunes to do, which is how this gets back to Paul Craft. I remember he started a music store in Memphis, but he sold that and moved to Nashville to try to become a songwriter, but nobody was listening to any of his songs. He sent me a tape that had “Midnight Flyer,” “Raised by the Railroad Line,” and “Keep Me from Blowing Away.” We started doing his stuff, and I knew Linda was going to be staying at our place while we were in the studio, so I called Paul and said “Get your fanny up here and stay down in our basement.” He’s playing on that same album, Old Train, and he played guitar on Linda’s “Keep Me from Blowing Away.” We were sitting around picking one night and [Linda] said, “I’m going to record that.” And I thought, Yeah, sure you are.
About two weeks later Emmylou Harris happened to be in Baltimore and the Eagles had stopped there. They met up at a late-night restaurant and the Eagles were talking about a song they’d gotten from the Osborne Brothers called “Midnight Flyer.” So within a two-week period, Paul Craft, who couldn’t get anybody to record his songs, found out that Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles recorded his songs. The next thing you know, everybody in Nashville was calling him and asking, “You got any more songs?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve got 40 or 50.” That included “Dropkick Me Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life,” which I don’t think anybody ever recorded before then.
I met Herb Pedersen and we’d see Phil Rosenthal at festivals so we’d start doing songs by those two. We’d do what John Duffey referred to as “acidgrass” and some covers. I think Tom Gray wanted to do more traditional things. But the thing about a band is that if they have disagreements about what they’re going to do, they’re probably going to be a better band rather than if everybody thinks, “We’re just going to do this.” But that was the fun part.
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