Mike Auldridge brought the dobro into the contemporary era of bluegrass. Yet this reluctant rebel is hardly a wild-eyed anarchist bent on tearing down an existing artistic system. Rather, Auldridge, whose uncle Elsworth Cozzens played slide on the recordings of Jimmy Rogers, found the new path for the dobro, albeit somewhat by accident while working to tie himself closer to the player that originated the dobro sound in bluegrass.
“My hero was Josh Graves,” Mike exclaims, “I could play every break that he did with Flatt & Scruggs, or I thought I did. Then when I was in college, I met him. Flatt & Scruggs were playing in Baltimore and Washington and had a four day layover. He stayed with a mutual friend, Brady Jones, who knew Josh graves. I was in school and they invited me to hang out. Josh was really a nice guy and was playing all of these old songs that I had never heard him play before; they weren’t recorded yet.” Mike actually recalled his initial embarrassment to play for the bluegrass icon and had to be talked into slidin’ a few strings. “I finally played something; probably one of his tunes, because I probably didn’t know more than ten songs, and it became apparent that he had this certain bluesy edge to his playing that I didn’t even realize was there until I sat in a room and watched him play.” Auldridge then reached a moment of discovery of his persona. “In my mind, I thought that I was a much weaker player than he was; because he was tearing the strings off that thing and I had this little delicate touch. But Josh said, you’re about as smooth of a player as I’ve ever heard. And that stuck with me; coming from Josh was the best praise that I ever could have got.”
Mike remembered, “a couple years later, I was still trying to play like Josh, but I never could. I remember riding along with Ben (Eldridge), it might have been on the way to cut Act II, and I was talking about the dobro and telling him about how great Josh was. Ben said, you’re as good as Josh is, you just sound different.” At this point Mike Auldridge began to really understand what his approach to the dobro had done.
However, Mike then noted that he actually came to grips with his artistic attitudes at a critical moment during his tenure with Emerson & Waldron. “The first recording that I did was with Emerson & Waldron. In those days, you didn’t rehearse anything, really, you just kind of cut it live. I remember thinking to myself, what in the world would Josh Graves do on this song? I didn’t have a clue and I would have to do what I would to do and hope that it would suffice. That was the beginning of my style. It wasn’t anything conscious, in fact I tried to play like somebody else and I just can not!”
Describing Mike Auldridge, as a musician, always begins with natural clarity of his tone. Mike commented that, “my taste in music, ran more toward prettier stuff than the raw hillbilly stuff came out in my records. I remember tuning the sixth string down to an E note and finding that I could get an A minor chord at a C fret. I cut “Killing Me Softly” with that idea. I didn’t know much about music, but I was stumbling along finding these things and, all of a sudden, I started gaining this following, that really surprised me, because, to me, I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I wanted to be Josh Graves!”
However, Mike Auldridge will always be fondly remembered as a founder of the a band that helped propel bluegrass from the hard-core hillbilly traditions, that was an element of that era of country music, toward the dynamic contemporary sound that emerged in the 1970s. “It was a very half-hazard thing. Ben (Eldridge) worked in a music store, teaching banjo, where John Duffy was repairing instruments in the back room. He had quit The Country Gentlemen in 69 and he’s not playing. We were all invited to a party and somebody put a mandolin in Duffy’s hands and we started playing. It just jelled right away. Then we got together at (John) Starling’s house a few weeks later and played some more. Duffy said that he missed this and wanted to get a job together. Duffy was one of these guys that didn’t play for fun and he’d been a Country Gentlemen for thirteen years, or whatever, and, to him, he needed to out in front of an audience. We didn’t care and would just as soon played in Starling’s living room for the rest of our lives.”
“We got together and played this little club called The Rabbit’s Foot, which was actually a rock & roll club near Georgetown.” However, this new band now required a name. “The rumor had gone around that we had been playing together. And Charlie Waller was playing at a festival and said I keep hearing this rumor that Duffy’s back in the business and you guys are starting a band that no one’s ever seen. What are you called, The Seldom Seen, as a joke. Duffy and Starling were laughing about this and said that should be the name.” Yet Mike recalled that, “I thought to myself, what a dumb name that is. I think that Starling decided that we should spell seen, scene. That was the beginning, it just sort of happened.”
One memory of the early days of The Seldom Scene remains clear in Mike’s mind. “At this stage, my brother Dave was in the band. A lot of people don’t know this, but it was a six piece band. We worked at this Rabbit’s Foot club on Monday nights.. we really only worked there only two Monday nights.. and they had Monday Night Football on television behind the bar. It was a little place with maybe fifteen or twenty people in there to watch us. Not only was there a television behind the bar, with the sound on, but there was a television on the stage beside us so, if you got sick of looking at us, you could watch the game beside us. This one guy, that was a friend of ours, asked the bartender if he would turn the sound down so he could hear the band. The bartender not only told the guy to leave, he picked him up and threw him out.” Auldridge and company were quick to react to this outrage; “we had this big argument and we walked out.”
The band then decided to walk over to The Red Fox, where Mike had worked with Emerson & Waldron. “I think Cliff was still working there,” Mike commented, “and we asked the owner if we could play there on Tuesday nights because Cliff was there on Thursday nights. He hired us and The Red Fox became known as a bluegrass club. The place didn’t seat more than eighty or ninety people, and by the time we’d played there the second week, the word had gotten out that John Duffy was out of retirement and people were bringing their own chairs because it was so crowded.”
The early success of the band inspired The Seldom Scene to quickly produce their first recording, Act I, and, as Mike noted, “we were off and running.”
“It was all very casual,” he recalls, “it was no big deal. None of us had any intention of this ever becoming anything. I was still working a day job until 1977; in the meantime we had cut Act I, II and III and I had cut Dobro and Blues & Bluegrass.”
Mike’s contributions to the Seldom Scene and the general lore of the dobro helped to immediately propel this Washington D.C. super-group to the top of the bluegrass heap from those initial gigs. And, while Mike’s instrumental growth was a vital element in the sound of the Seldom Scene, he admits that “I was actually always uncomfortable on stage for the first ten years that I played. I was completely content to stay up there and never say a word.”
“Even if I didn’t take a break on a song, it was no big deal and I didn’t take breaks on every song,” Auldridge observed. “Now, everybody has to take a break on every song! In those days, I thought my job was to make the singer sound good and do tasteful little things to make it prettier. I was fortunate to be in a band with Duffy almost from the beginning of my career. Duffy was a born entertainer; you either loved him or hated him, but you had to watch him. That took the pressure off of me.
The audience for The Seldom Scene escalated despite the fact that the ensemble worked their way through a progression of lead singers. However Mike remained with the band until an economic situation surfaced and left him to seek a new situation.
“Lou Reid came into the band, in 1990 or 89, and it was great,” Mike noted, then he left, to go with Vince Gill and we brought back John Starling. I loved the band, but it was entirely different. With Lou Reid, there was this high energy going on. When Starling came back, it was back to what we were doing in the early seventies. It was beautiful and I loved it but it was a whole different thing.”
Then, the inevitable winds of change engulfed Mike Auldridge’s world. “Starling was a successful doctor, Ben, never did leave his job, was a successful mathematician and Duffy actually was making money off of songs that he had written throughout his career and had arranged his life so he didn’t need a lot of money,” he recalls. “At this stage, Michael Coleman and I are in the band and this is all that we were doing. They wanted to work once a month and be more seldom seen than we were.”
Mike’s initial reaction to the limited schedule was to recognize that any new job for him would have to be another band. “Moondi Klein was the guy we had interviewed for the job to take Lou’s place when he left, but John Starling said he wanted to come back so, of course, went with him.” Mike heard that veteran mandolinist, Jimmy Gaudreau, was working with Moondi Klein on the side because gigs with Tony Rice were slowing down as well. He asked Mike and T. Michael Coleman, who was playing bass with The Scene, to get together on an informal basis to see what develops. Mike knew that this new band was something special and Chesapeake was born. “The four of us were on fire, playing three or four times a week in my basement. Moondi Klein had a suitcase full of ideas, songs and things and we went in and cut Rising Tide.”
Then, as Mike’s participation in The Seldom Scene became limited, this new opportunity arose. “We were getting unbelievably good response! So we started getting a lot of offers to go out and book jobs.”
The potential for Chesapeake unnerved his other bandmates. “It started worrying Duffy and, to be honest, Starling, said that he wanted to quit again because his practice was so busy.” John Duffy suggested that the replacement for John Starling be Moondie Klein until Mike offered that “it wasn’t going to make Chesapeake go away.”
“Ben and Duffy never wanted to practice and didn’t want to play very often, yet they didn’t want Chesapeake in there too” Auldridge mused. “To make a long, and bitter, story short and sweet, I was forced into a place where I had to decide between The Seldom Scene and Chesapeake.”
And Auldridge notes, “to be honest, it caused some hard feelings. Duffy was really pissed because I made this choice that this band, Chesapeake, was more of a viable way to continue my career as a musician, while Ben and he wanted to cut way back (anyway). As it turned out, when they replaced Moondie, Michael and Me it rejuvenated The Seldom Scene. So it was good for them too.
The new band released three projects and each one excited Mike Auldridge from an artistic level. “The Chesapeake guys were on fire with music” he observed, but followed with the realization, “after three albums we imploded because we didn’t fit a niche. I think we were about ten years ahead of our time. I think that now, in 2005, that band would be more widely accepted than it was in 1995.”
Chesapeake’s musical concepts were entirely different from what was going on in the bluegrass market and, while the band received strong initial response, the band eventually hit the wall. “We were working so little that Moondi and Michael had to take day jobs” to make ends meet.
Mike, again was faced with the proposition of making ends meet with a band that works a limited schedule. Then fate smiled again. “I was riding in the car one day when I heard a guitar player named Richard Bennett on the radio. I told Jimmy Gaudreau, who had left Tony Rice, that this guy sounded like young Tony Rice. Jimmy told me that he was working with Bennett on the side and going to Europe with him as a duo.” Mike recognized an opportunity and asked if he might join them and tour Europe as a trio.
While the tour was successful and the trio recorded a project to support their efforts, the new band caused friction with Mike’s mates in Chesapeake. And, Auldridge was again faced with much the same problem that he faced when departing the Seldom Scene. Chesapeake had limited touring opportunities and had fulfilled their recording contract. With no new outlets recording opportunities available Mike faced the question of maintaining his role with Chesapeake or work with a dynamic new unit that showcased his abilities. Mike chose to end Chesapeake.
The Auldridge-Bennett-Gaudreau band was also short-lived. “That didn’t last very long; a couple years, we did a couple albums.” But Mike quickly found a new situation to explore. “I was playing at a festival and there was a band there called The Good Deal Bluegrass Band.” Mike recognized that the band sounded like the old Seldom Scene. “I walked around front and their attitude on stage was kinda like the attitude of the Old Seldom Scene. I liked some of the songs they were doing and the next thing you know, I’m working with them.”
In the meantime an opportunity arose when John Starling retired from his medical practice and helped create a band with Tom Gray, Rickie Simpkins, Jimmy Gaudreau and Mike. This ensemble produced a project and is investigating a release.
Mike Auldridge is a revolutionary musician. Players in bluegrass will often brag on how little they actually know about music theory and that the learned knowledge is not required to play this kind of music. On the other hand, Mike Auldridge now approaches his music with an active interest in the mechanics of music. “I had been making records with, not only The Seldom Scene and Emerson & Waldron but also people like Jim Eanes and EmmyLou Harris. I had a rough idea of what I was doing, but not really. And I had studied music in college but never really applied it to music (performance) until, about 1975, I got interested in the pedal steel. Then I bought this book called The Anatomy Of The Pedal Steel and it cost a dollar and a quarter. And that guy explained theory in how it applied to the pedal steel in such easy terms that it got to my brain where the things that I studied in college never did.”
Auldridge then commented, “a dobro is one level of theory, playing on one plane, while the pedal steel is about eight or ten planed deep because of all the pedals involved. In order to play the thing, you really have to get a grip on theory.” However he notes that, “it took me a while to incorporate theory into my playing. In the late 70s I started putting that knowledge on to the dobro in an eight string too. Actually I first went to a ten string because I was used to seeing this on a ten string pedal steel. I had Dobro make me a ten string guitar and I didn’t like it so I changed it to eight strings.” However,
“The best way to learn an instrument is to understand the structure of music. How the major, minor and diminished chords relate to each other, and I didn’t have a clue. I remember that I was doing a record in Baltimore and, by this time, people were considering me to be hot stuff. And I didn’t have a clue. I knew what key we were playing in, but beyond that (nothing). When he was singing I was hunting around for what would work. I had good memory. When it was time for me to take a break, I was just doing things that I knew would work because I found them by accident. And that limits you. Once I learned the theory end of it I noted that if I could do that (technique), I could do this (technique). Then all of a sudden there were ten other things that I could do and was much more interesting.”
However, Mike fully understands that music comes from both directions and explains this with an observation, “it’s a fine line that you have to balance between playing with knowledge and playing with heart. Some people are so overwhelmed by the theory that they forget bring out the emotion of the music.” He wrapped up the discussion with the observation, “some people learned how to read music first, and can’t play without reading; thinking in theory terms. In my case, I learned to play by ear and then figured out why I was doing what I was doing. Then, I was able to keep that heartfelt thing going even though I was approaching it at more of a theoretical level.” And he laughed when he said, “this happened in the mid seventies, after I had been playing since the fifties. If I had only learned it… it probably would have been a lot faster, but I might have been a lot more sterile.”
Mike Auldridge continues to play, teach, promote his endorsed model Beard guitar and learn about the dobro and pedal steel guitar. “In the end, I’m glad I made each move that I’ve made. It’s been good for me and I’ve never been happier.”
SPBGMA is proud to welcome Mike Auldridge as the 2006 inductee in The Preservation Hall Of Greats.