For nearly 40 years the distinctive playing and singing of John Duffey has been one of the glories of contemporary bluegrass music. His work with the Country Gentlemen and then the Seldom Scene has helped not only to shape its development, but has ensured that it remains as relevant a musical form today as it was when pioneered by Bill Monroe back in the Thirties and Forties.
Bluegrass developed out of the string band tradition prevalent in the rural South in the early years of the century and is characterised by driving rhythms, tight virtuoso playing and "high lonesome" vocals. Monroe, as the genre's "father", saw his music as a pure form with clearly defined boundaries, but found that many of his followers were to adopt a more eclectic approach. Duffey was amongst them.
A native of Washington DC, Duffey came to prominence as a member of the Country Gentlemen. The quartet of Duffey, Charlie Waller as lead vocalist and flat top guitarist, Jim Cox as banjo player and Eddie Adcock as mandolinist made their stage debut on Independence Day 1957. They looked beyond the standard bluegrass repertoire, incorporating not only vintage hillbilly melodies, but also straight country, folk-rock and even jazz numbers into their act.
For a decade the Gentlemen performed on a twice-weekly basis at the famous Shamrock Club, Georgetown and proved a vital catalyst to the burgeoning DC bluegrass scene. Regular television appearances and a series of acclaimed albums brought them to national attention: their long-players include four volumes for Folkways - Country Songs Old and New, Folksongs and Bluegrass, On the Road and Going Back to the Blue Ridge Mountains; a pair of fine albums for Saturday - Bluegrass and Country Gentlemen; and a live set for Zap.
In 1971 Duffey and the bass player Tom Gray left the group to form another, the Seldom Scene. They were joined by the banjoist Ben Eldridge and the dobro wizard Mike Auldridge, both of whom had performed with Cliff Waldron's New Shades of Grass, and by the vocalist/guitarist John Starling. Their name derived from the fact that none made a living solely by performing: Duffey repaired musical instruments, Gray was a cartographer with the National Geographic Society and Starling had trained as an army surgeon. By playing only weekly at the Red Fox pizza parlour, Bethesda, Maryland, they were thus "seldom seen".
As they began to record for the DC-based Rebel label, the Scene played also on the theatrical connotation of their name, entitling their first four albums Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 and Act 4. Although their eclectic approach continued to offend some bluegrass fans, the Scene's playing could rarely be faulted and in Starling they had one of the genre's premier vocalists.
Unusually for a bluegrass band, the Seldom Scene's line-up has remained relatively stable, and when the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with a live set, "Scene 20", for Sugar Hill in 1992, the eight individuals who had been or were members all participated. The closeness and rapport fostered by their long association is evident throughout for here, as on each of their albums, is a group who clearly and genuinely enjoyed what they were doing.
In 1995 and fronted by Moondi Klein, they played the European Bluegrass and Cajun Festival at Blackburn, a gig billed as their last. This year however, saw the release of a new album, Dream Scene, on which Duffey and Eldridge are joined by the ex-Johnson Mountain Boy Dudley Connell, the bassist Ronnie Simpkins and the dobro player Fred Travers; one on which spot-on harmonies and tasteful picking are, as ever, to the fore.
Nineteen ninety-six marks the Seldom Scene's 25th anniversary and John Duffey has been a constant presence throughout. Whether it can survive without him remains to be seen.
John Duffey, bluegrass singer and mandolin player: born Washington DC 4 March 1934; died Arlington, Virginia 10 December 1996.
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