A Good Song Lasts Forever: An Interview with The Seldom Scene’s Dudley Connell
The DC metro area boasts a rich bluegrass history thanks to groups like The Country Gentlemen and Johnson Mountain Boys, to name just two. But if the city were to erect a monument saluting local bluegrass, it’d probably depict The Seldom Scene, a band that’s influenced countless musicians in its 40-year history. The band has recently released a fine new album, Long Time…Seldom Scene, a collection that includes newly recorded versions of fan favorites like “Wait a Minute” and “Hickory Wind” and includes an all-star lineup of guests, including longtime friend and collaborator Emmylou Harris as well as Punch Brother Chris Eldridge, son of Seldom Scene banjo player Ben Eldridge. We caught up with the Scene’s guitarist of nearly 20 years, Dudley Connell, to chat about the new record, the legacy of their larger than life frontman, John Duffey, and the secret to the band’s longevity.
You’ve spent two decades with the band and you’re still the rookie?
(laughs) Something like that! Me, Fred Travers, and Ronnie Simpkins all started rehearsing around September of 1995 and our first show date was at the Birchmere on New Year’s Eve. We all joined at the same time.
You were with the Johnson Mountain Boys at the time; how’d you end up joining The Seldom Scene?
It was almost by accident, to tell you the truth. I had known John Duffey and the entire band by playing co-bills with those guys. A lot of promoters back in the ‘80s thought it would be cute to have a contemporary band and a real traditional band, both out of TV, on the bill for shows and festivals, so we worked with the Scene quite a bit, especially around the DC area. Then I had heard through the grapevine — I think I got something in the mail — that the Seldom Scene were dissolving the band and Mike Auldridge and Moondi Klein were going to form the band Chesapeake. So I called John to express my condolences, because the Scene is kind of an institution here in Washington and he, in Duffey style, goes “Oh, no, we’re not really dissolving the band, we’re just looking for a guitar player, lead singer, baritone singer, Dobro player, bass player…”
I said, “John, we ought to get together and sing sometime.” There was total silence on the other end of the phone and I thought, “Oh, geez, I’ve stepped over the line here.” John said, “Do you know any of our material?” I said, “No, not really, but I’ve been listening to the Scene on the radio for 20 years.” That was in the summer of ’95, but we were both busy and it ended up being sometime in September before we actually got together, and by the time that rolled around, I really wanted the job.
So we met at John’s house. We were all kind of intimidated by John because he had a larger than life persona. It turned out that once I got to know him, he was one of the most gentle human beings, kind people I’d ever met, but I didn’t know that at the time. He always seemed like a little aggressive. When it came time for our first rehearsal, I didn’t want to get there too early but I didn’t want to be late either. So I left really early, parked my car in the church parking lot, and every couple minutes, I’d drive a little bit closer to his house. I noticed an SUV down the street doing the same thing in the opposite direction – it ended up being Ronnie Simpkins. We were both inching our way to Duffey’s house. Once we got there and played a couple tunes, it worked right out of the chute. I had a limited repertoire of their stuff in my head, but it was a little magic moment. One of the highlights of my musical career, to tell you the truth.
About a year after you joined the band, John Duffey passed away. How did that affect the band?
It was a huge shock. It shouldn’t have been a shock to me, but it was. He just always seemed larger than life. It’s kind of like your father. Your dad doesn’t die. They just can’t. When he passed, it was a huge shock. It shouldn’t have been: he had congestive heart failure and he smoked a lot of cigarettes and ate bad food. We all should have seen it coming, but we didn’t. After he passed, he died in December of ’96, and we’re sitting on a year’s worth of performance dates and contracts that we were obligated to play. So we called our booking agency because we weren’t sure what to do. The agency called the promoters to see what they wanted to do, and I think there were only two dates that canceled the contract because of Duffey’s passing. The rest of them wanted the band to continue.
So we got together at Ronnie’s house – me, Ben, Ronnie, and Fred – to decide whether we wanted to go on or not. We really looked to Ben, because he’d been doing this for 40 years, and he was a fulltime mathematician through all those years. I thought if Ben wanted to hang it up, I’d respect that decision, but he wanted to continue.
I think for the first couple dates we got Dan Tyminski to play mandolin and sing tenor for us. Don Rigsby and a couple others played a few dates for us too. We had a date in Mount Airy, North Carolina and Lou, who lives in North Carolina, who was in the band back in the ‘80s, wanted to audition. Boy, when he got in the groove, it just felt natural. He knew the way the music was supposed to feel. He played guitar and sang lead, which I do now. That was around June of ’97, and we haven’t had a personnel change since, which is pretty remarkable.
What’s the secret to the band’s longevity?
We kept our day jobs and we don’t really tour. We play about 60 or 70 dates a year but we don’t go out for weeks on end and live together. We each have our own hotel rooms, we get to the gigs on our own, whether we’re flying or driving or whatever. I think having a little bit of space between us keeps us all friendly. When we get together to play, we’re generally glad to see each other. It’s fun.
How did you end up on Folkways?
They approached us. We had conversations about doing a record of old tunes for a while. What has happened is over the course of the last 18 years, these old songs have evolved and changed naturally, because we sing them all the time. We have people that approach us at the merch table and what they most frequently request are those songs done by this lineup. A group that’s been together this long takes on its own personality.
So we thought about it and when Folkways approached us, they wanted to do the same thing. They said, “We’d like to do a legacy record.” I don’t remember whether it was Folkways or us who said, “If we’re going to do that, we ought to get John Starling and Tom Gray.” We were lucky enough to get Emmylou Harris, and then we had some family members: Rickie Simpkins, Ronnie’s brother plays great fiddle and Chris Eldridge is a world-class guitar player. We brought them in too. It was like Old Home Week. It was a little reunion in the studio. There was a great vibe. It was a fun record to do.
We all fell into it pretty easily. It went easier than it should. It just felt really good. My only regret is that we couldn’t get Mike Auldridge on it. He passed away just before we started recording. It would have been a real treat to have him on the record.
The way we do “Hickory Wind,” Lou sings all the verses and we add harmony on the chorus. So he did it first, we did the chorus, and when she sang the next verse, it was like angels. She did such a beautiful job and it was different from any way I’d ever heard it done before. Two or three passes and she was done. It was wonderful to watch her work.
What was the recording process like?
I think we cut the tracks with breaks live with a scratch vocal, and then we went back and sang the vocals. I think we cut the whole thing in about three or four days, which, for us, is pretty good.
How did you pick the 16 songs to include on the album?
We all had a hand in that. A lot of it, though, came from people who support the band, the people who come to see us a lot. There are certain songs that we play every show. We have to play “Wait a Minute” and “Bottom of the Glass” because we always get requests for them. Those were the easy ones. I think I suggested the Hazel Dickens song, “My Better Years,” because I was a big fan and I worked with her for a long time.
Looking back as someone who’s been both a fan and a member, how would you say the Seldom Scene influenced bluegrass?
More than anything, I think our choice in material has been influential. I know this to be a fact because I heard John Duffey say in an interview say, “I can sing ‘Blue Ridge Cabin Home,’ but I never lived in a cabin. I can sing that stuff, but I’m a city guy. I was born and raised in Bethesda and Northern Virginia. I can’t relate to those songs and they’ve already been done so well so many times.” So they looked elsewhere to find material: Dylan, Clapton…
We’ve continued that. We look under all different rocks for our material. I think the song is the most important thing. Performance is great, good singing is great, but a good song will last forever.
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