19 October 2006

Old Train

One of the great things about being a Fulbrighter in Finland is that it simplifies the life wonderfully. I mean, you just don’t have that much stuff. George Carlin used to have a very funny routine about “stuff,” and how we ought to just pitch most of it, but we never do. Well, I’m living out of two suitcases, a laptop computer, and a backpack. In anticipation of this Spartan existence, I shipped a box of books over here on July 28. It was supposed to arrive on Labor Day. It arrived a month later. Of course I erred in shipping it, instead of swallowing hard and sending it Federal Express. But when I opened that box, I realized that I also had managed to send all the wrong stuff. I no longer needed most of the books in that box. Some of them I hadn‘t even missed.

Then there was John W. Reps’s The Making of Urban America, one of the classic texts in my field. I love this book, and it was the backbone of the first three weeks of my course on The North American City. But by the time I pulled Reps out of that box, he was ancient history, so to speak. And so it had the aspect, not of a beloved book, but of a heavy, oversized parcel that I was either going to have to ship or schlep all the way home. So I gave it to a student who has more need of it than I do at this point in my life. And I feel really, really good about that, though I am not ready just yet to start giving all my books away.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that packing is difficult, and that I made a lot of mistakes, mistakes I’m sure I would make again, and that’s the discouraging part. But I made one very good decision, on the basis of sheer whimsy, that has made me a happy camper. At the last minute, realizing that I had a few square millimeters of space in my backpack, I threw in an old Seldom Scene CD.

I’m going to assume that while hundreds of thousands of the faithful readers of this blog are following me all the way, there might be tens of thousands who might need a little background here. I am not the person best equipped to provide that background, but I will do the best I can. The Seldom Scene—sometimes with the definite article, sometimes without—is a Washington-based bluegrass group that has had a very loyal following for three decades and more. My bride and I very definitely are kenny-and-janey-come-latelies to this crowd, and we have been fellow travelers at best. But I think it is fair to say that the Seldom Scene is and always has been more urbane and eclectic than most bluegrass groups. And a little quirky. They ordinarily work with a dobro instead of a fiddle, and while they almost always have had guitarists, you get the impression they don't feel as if the guitar is indispensable. Gosh, I hope I am getting this right.

You know, I don’t believe the United States government has ever really tapped the diplomatic potential of bluegrass. There was a time when the State Department would send jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong around the world to build good will for America. I’m sure they did, too, by disseminating a distinctly American art form, one in which we should take pride, and one that there is no earthly reason to hoard. A bluegrass ambassador would do wonders for our image abroad. In my next life, I want to be the Bill Monroe professor of American studies at the University of Helsinki.

But I digress—again. Where were we? Seldom Scene. As I understand it, the name of the group derives from there having been key members at the outset who had daytime jobs and didn’t want to go on the road, which they easily could have done because they were so good. But in the event, they were “seldom seen.” The godfather of the group was John Duffey, a big man who played a little instrument, the mandolin, and sang tenor. For many years, the group has (have? Perkele!) been frequently spotted at the Birchmere, which is only about a mile and a half from our house in Alexandria—but in a much seedier neighborhood, let me put that on record.

Okay, now that we’ve settled that, let me get back to my good packing decision. At the last minute, I threw a Seldom Scene CD called Old Train into my backpack. And there it languished until last Saturday night, when I dragged it out and put it on the proverbial turntable. Since then I’ve been playing it over and over. I had been letting that CD languish on our kitchen counter, next to the Bose, for years, and for no good reason. I simply had too much stuff. Whenever I wanted to listen to some music, some other CD always had precedence. Many’s the time Bach’s St. John Passion trumped Seldom Scene. I’m not proud of that. Sometimes I would reach out for Old Train and end up with Steely Dan, or even the Eagles. I can’t tell you why.

But now that this CD has my full attention (it’s that or nothing), let me say that my grabbing instinct was inspired.

When you think bluegrass, you think traditional music, and that’s right as far as it goes. But under the capacious umbrella of “folk” music, Seldom Scene has always preferred to run with the gospel crowd, and that is a little unusual. They are very selective, however, and careful in their arrangements to capitalize on everything that is meritorious in that genre. Best of all, they have never allowed a scintilla of either sentimentality or condescension to creep into their performance of gospel music. Elvis, I hope you are doing the boogaloo in your grave on that particular note. There are a couple of gospel tunes on Old Train, at least one of which I have heard the Stanley Brothers perform, perhaps in that George Clooney movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which I didn’t happen to throw in my backpack at the last minute, unfortunately.

Apart from the gospel tunes and the public domain folk music, the Seldom Scene always has had a weakness for Hank Williams. On Old Train, Hank is represented by Pan American, a marvelous choice. Several selections, most notably, Wait a Minute—I’ll have more to say about that, hetkinen, as we say in Finland—have been Seldom Scene standards for many years. Some people write songs specifically for Seldom Scene, compositions that pay homage to the group’s eclecticism. I’m sorry, I keep using that word, but there isn’t a better one, or any good synonym.

After I was really starting to appreciate this CD, I began to notice that several cuts contained something that shouldn’t be there. Sometimes a fiddle crept into the background. And sometimes one could hear a distinctly female voice, ordinarily a bluegrass no-no. Eventually, I realized I was going to have to put on my spectacles and read the liner notes, something I never do. It turns out that Old Train was recorded in 1974, and released as a CD in 1988. In terms of the performers, it is something of a mélange. There is a list of the group’s members on the cover, but because of the “guest artists,” the performers also are listed cut by cut. There are three constants. John Duffey, mandolin and vocals, gets top billing everywhere. Ben Eldridge, banjo, and Tom Gray, bass and vocals, are on every cut, but Eldridge is listed fourth, and Gray fifth, after John Starling, guitar and vocals, and Mike Auldridge, dobro and vocals, when they are performing. Starling, incidentally, was a surgeon on the side. Paul Craft, guitar, and Bob Williams, harmonica, are two of the four guest artists.

Now get this. The fiddling turns out to be the work of the illustrious Ricky Skaggs, who plays on the title cut and also on Old Crossroads. Skaggs also plays viola on Different Roads. And the female voice is that of Linda Ronstadt, who sings on Through the Bottom of the Glass and Old Crossroads. Ronstadt would then have been at the very pinnacle of her career, the era during which she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underwear every other week. But there she is on Old Train, down in agate type at the bottom of the pecking order for both of those cuts. Such was the stature, the authority, of the late John Duffey.

Google, you know, is absolutely amazing. I typed in “Linda Ronstadt underwear” and it took me directly to a gallery of the very photos I had in mind, from which I chose the one above, this being, after all, a Family Blog.

Well, I hope you’re having fun. I am. But there is a point here. Yes, stuff is overrated, and serendipity plays a role in packing decisions. But we know all that. The point I want to convey is that while one must acknowledge The Tie that Binds (the sub-title of one of the cuts from Old Train), one also needs to recognize when a tie needs to be loosened, if not severed. As fantastic as Seldom Scene was in 1974, when Linda Ronstadt was pleased to jam with them in a Washington recording studio, the group is even better today.

Ben Eldridge, the sole surviving common thread, is a master craftsman, the consummate professional who never shows off, even though you know he could. He has had thirty years since Old Train to refine his technique. And of course he is even better now. Seldom Scene still plays Wait a Minute. But now the harmonies seem even tighter, and more refined. Fred Travers plays a dobro that is divine, and his tenor is sweeter, less twangy than Duffey’s. Yes, I know that is heresy. Dudley Connell, guitar and vocals, and Lou Reid, mandolin and vocals, know enough not to try to duplicate Duffey, and so they play to their own manifold strengths. Ronnie Simpkins is the bassist now. Today’s group has continued the tradition of borrowing from other genres, and not just by “covering” songs that we already know and love. More typically, they will exhume a totally non-descript and unmourned corpse from someone else’s music crypt and turn it into a wonder with just a little judicious pruning or tweaking. Good as they were in 1974, nothing the group did then can come close to clearing the bar set by the current group with Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, or Bruce Springsteen’s One Step Up.

Once I had a historian friend, now deceased, who loathed sentimentality. He liked to say that “the good old days aren’t what they used to be, and never were.” I don’t know where he got that line, but ain’t it the truth.

Click on the title of this post to go to the official Seldom Scene website.