Do­bro’s stan­dard-set­ter

Sil­ver Spring res­i­dent mod­ern­ized early blue­grass in­stru­ment, paving the way for the Ali­son Krauss era

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY BILL FRIS­KICS-WAR­REN Bill Fris­kics-War­ren is a free­lance mu­sic writer liv­ing in Nashville and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to TheWash­ing­ton Post.

The fickle na­ture of the mu­sic busi­ness of­ten has artists sec­ond-guess­ing them­selves, par­tic­u­larly when their ca­reers span decades. That is cer­tainly the case with Sel­dom Scene co-founder Mike Auldridge, one of maybe a hand­ful of truly in­no­va­tive Do­bro play­ers in the his­tory of coun­try and blue­grass mu­sic.

For the D.C. na­tive who now lives in Sil­ver Spring, the cru­cial “What if?” moment came when he had the op­por­tu­nity to move to Nashville in the early 1970s. Had he done so, Mu­sic City’s dearth of Do­broists would have made him coun­try mu­sic’s most in-de­mand ses­sion player on the in­stru­ment. In­stead the dis­tinc­tion went to his pro­tege, Jerry Dou­glas, who moved to Nashville not long af­ter Auldridge de­cided not to.

“Look­ing back, I’ve of­ten won­dered and even wished I’d gone to Nashville,” said Auldridge, who will per­form Wed­nes­day, as part of the In­sti­tute of Mu­si­cal Tra­di­tions con­cert se­ries, with singer-song­writ­ers Eric Brace and Peter Cooper at the Takoma Park Com­mu­nity Cen­ter.

“My wife and I se­ri­ously con­sid­ered it, but who knows?” he added with a chuckle. “Had we moved to Nashville I might have wound up play­ing steel gui­tar in a band and dy­ing in a plane crash.”

All kid­ding – and con­jec­ture – aside, Auldridge’s de­ci­sion to stay put was Washington’s gain, and he ac­com­plished much that he might not have had he moved to Ten­nessee.

He al­most cer­tainly wouldn’t have been able to re­main in the Sel­dom Scene, with whom he went on to en­ter­tain hun­dreds at the Birch­mere each week while help­ing ce­ment the D.C. area’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hot­bed of con­tem­po­rary blue­grass. He also might not have honed an el­e­gant, lyrical ap­proach to the Do­bro con­sis­tent with an ur­ban set­ting like the nation’s cap­i­tal or be­come a first-call side­man for record­ings made on the East and West coasts by genre-cross­ing artists like Linda Ron­stadt and Em­my­lou Har­ris.

He might not, in other words, have ex­panded the pos­si­bil­i­ties for the Do­bro. (The name Do­bro is a con­trac­tion of Dopy­era broth­ers, the Slo­vak Amer­i­can sib­lings who patented an early ver­sion of the in­stru­ment in 1928. A sin­gle, bowl­shaped res­onator is built into the face of an acous­tic gui­tar to pro­duce a richer, stronger tone with­out re­quir­ing am­pli­fi­ca­tion.) With his play­ing, Auldridge set a so­phis­ti­cated new stan­dard for young Do­bro play­ers, and he’s served as a harbinger

“I’ve of­ten won­dered and even wished I’d gone to Nashville. ”

— Mike Auldridge

of an om­niv­o­rous strain of blue­grass-based acous­tic mu­sic later pop­u­lar­ized by Ali­son Krauss, Gillian Welch and oth­ers.

“Mike changed ev­ery­thing,” said Jerry Dou­glas, for years a main­stay of Krauss’s Grammy-win­ning band, Union Sta­tion. “He phrased dif­fer­ently. He was the first guy to use the Do­bro in a more mod­ern way, to phrase it more like a sax­o­phone or some other in­stru­ment.

“Mike isn’t a fast, rolling Do­bro player, and be­cause of that he cre­ated this other way,” added Dou­glas, who early in his ca­reer em­u­lated Auldridge’s play­ing and ap­proach. “He was able to play more mod­ern ma­te­rial and that freed me. It un­chained me from tra­di­tional blue­grass mu­sic. It was a rev­e­la­tion, and Mike was the guy who made it hap­pen.”

Ed­die Stubbs, an an­nouncer on the Grand Ole Opry and for years the host of a drive-time blue­grass ra­dio show on Washington’s WAMU, placed Auldridge’s sig­nif­i­cance in even broader his­tor­i­cal con­text.

“Bashful Brother Oswald is the man who res­cued the Do­bro from ob­scu­rity with his work with Roy Acuff in the ’40s and ’50s,” Stubbs ex­plained. “ Then Un­cle Josh Graves came along and took the thing to an­other level with the three-fin­ger roll he learned from Earl Scruggs. Mike, who ini­tially played in the style of Josh Graves, brought a smoother ap­proach. He had a more com­mer­cial ap­proach that could ap­peal to both the hard­est-core tra­di­tion­al­ist but at the same time to peo­ple who didn’t know much about the in­stru­ment or who didn’t fol­low blue­grass mu­sic.”

Auldridge, whose ma­ter­nal un­cle, Ellsworth Cozzens, played Do­bro on some of Jim­mie Rodgers’s early record­ings, uses words like “fate” and “un­know­ingly” to de­scribe the evo­lu­tion of his play­ing.

“It was just one of those things where you do some­thing and don’t even know you’re do­ing it,” he said with char­ac­ter­is­tic un­der­state­ment. “I just came along at the right time to bridge what the Do­bro was in the ’40s and ’50s to what it is now. It wasn’t un­til the ’80s and ’90s, when younger play­ers like Rob Ickes started com­ing up to meat shows and say­ing how much I in­flu­enced them, that I re­al­ized that I had be­come Josh Graves to these guys.”

Now 72, Auldridge has played with a num­ber of bands over the years, from Ch­e­sa­peake to the Coun­try Gentle­men, with whom he turned down a reg­u­lar gig in the early ’70s only to have a 14-year-old Jerry Dou­glas claim the spot. He’s also re­leased nine solo al­bums, as well as a re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tive project, for Nashville-based Red Beet Records, with coun­try steel gui­tar great Lloyd Green.

Auldridge’s play­ing con­tin­ues to evolve, in­clud­ing the devel­op­ment of his sig­na­ture eight-string re­so­phonic gui­tar. The for­ma­tive early days of his more than two decades with the Sel­dom Scene, how­ever— a time when he was still work­ing a day job as a graphic artist at the now-de­funct Washington Star — were when his play­ing, and blue­grass mu­sic, re­ally turned a corner.

“We were the next step in the pol­ish,” he said of the Sel­dom Scene. “We liked James Tay­lor as much as we liked Ralph Stan­ley, and we at­tracted an au­di­ence of like­minded peo­ple. We were col­lege-ed­u­cated. We were con­tem­po­rary and ur­ban. We weren’t sing­ing about mother and log cabins be­cause that’s not where we came from.”

The Sel­dom Scene, echoed Dou­glas, “changed the mind-set that blue­grass couldn’t be mod­ern mu­sic. Sud­denly they were do­ing Bob Dylan songs. They weren’t just re­hash­ing all these old moun­tain bal­lads. They bred a whole new gen­er­a­tion of play­ers and bands, and they def­i­nitely had an in­flu­ence on what Ali­son Krauss & Union Sta­tion are do­ing now. They made it clear that it was okay to change, that blue­grass wasn’t just about who your in­flu­ences were.”

“ The Sel­dom Scene took blue­grass mu­sic to great heights in the Washington metropoli­tan area,” added Ed­die Stubbs. “It was the per­fect ve­hi­cle for Mike’s tal­ents.”


MA­JOR IN­FLU­ENCE: Mu­si­cianMike Auldridge has taken a mod­ern ap­proach to an old in­stru­ment, set­ting the stan­dard for to­day’s Do­bro play­ers. He was a fore­run­ner of the blue­grass-based mu­sic now widely pop­u­lar­ized.

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