By Randy Barrett

The legendary banjoist Ben Eldridge passed away on April 14, 2024 in Fredericksburg, VA. Eldridge is one of the most influential players of his generation and was a co-founder of the supergroup The Seldom Scene. The cause was complications related to Parkinson’s Disease.

Born in Richmond, VA on August 15, 1938, Ben was an only child. The sounds of hillbilly music made an early impression on him as he sat by the radio listening to the Old Dominion Barn Dance on WRVA. The popular show was broadcast from the Lyric Theater in downtown Richmond, only a few blocks from Ben’s house.

At age 10 Ben told his parents he wanted to learn the accordion, but they said it was too expensive. He then convinced his mother Polly to buy him a guitar. She took him to Sears Roebuck and purchased a Gene Autry Melody Ranch guitar which came with a book of cowboy songs and chords. Ben was quickly serenading both family and friends.

It didn’t take long for Eldridge to persuade his mother to take him to a live show of the Old Dominion Barn Dance. It was an Opry-style bonanza featuring the leading country acts of the day, including Mac Wiseman, Grandpa Jones & Ramona, Flatt & Scruggs, Don Reno, Chet Atkins, the Carter Sisters, and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis. Ben would sit in the balcony playing air guitar and, during the break between the 7:30pm and 9:30pm show, he would head down to the dressing rooms and hang out with the performers.

When Ben was 16, he convinced his parents that what he really wanted was a banjo. He received a Gibson RB100 for his birthday and began his tutelage in front of the record player learning every note Earl Scruggs played. Not much later, Ben’s father, Ned, heard him practicing, walked into the room and declared: “It’s nothing but a cacophony of harsh and unpleasant sounds.”

Luckily, Ben was undeterred.

He matriculated to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1957 and ran headlong into the folk music revival sweeping the nation. There Ben met the noted country performer Bill Clifton, and also Paul Craft, a fellow student who wanted to learn the banjo. (Craft would later play with Jimmy Martin and become a top Nashville songwriter.) When not in class studying mathematics, Ben was a regular at jam sessions around campus. It was at one of these gatherings that he met John Starling who was attending medical school at UVA.

After graduating in 1961, Eldridge moved to Bethesda, MD and took a job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He spent all his spare time practicing and attending any jam session within 50 miles. Despite a very active bluegrass scene in the greater Washington, DC area, Ben had no interest in playing professionally. By the mid 1960s he was holding a regular jam session in his basement. Regulars included Mike Auldridge on dobro, John Starling, Dave Auldridge on guitar, Tom Gray or Gary Henderson on bass, Bruce Barnes on mandolin and Dan Happala on fiddle. That basement would later become the birthplace of the Seldom Scene.

Eldridge was profoundly influenced by the banjo playing of DC great Bill Emerson. In 1970, Emerson left Cliff Waldron’s band to return to the Country Gentlemen and Cliff asked Ben to take the banjo position. Eldridge readily agreed. Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass was his first professional band, and it had the added benefit of including Mike Auldridge on dobro.

The group gave Eldridge the opportunity to solidify his style – a combination of Scruggs, melodic and chromatic playing. He liked hard driving, traditional bluegrass and Cliff Waldron did alot of that. But Waldron also brought in contemporary country and rock material that was new to bluegrass. It was the perfect training ground for the Seldom Scene, the inception of which Eldridge would call “the big accident,” a short time later.

Neither Ben nor Mike Auldridge stayed in Waldron’s band long. By mid 1971, both found the rigors of a full-time band on top of full-time employment and family obligations too much to handle. The basement jam sessions continued, however. On a fateful night later that year, the pick-up band was playing the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, filling in for Cliff Waldron who was out of town. The phone rang and owner Walt Broderick picked it up. On the other end was the manager of a rock club in Georgetown called the Rabbit’s Foot. He was interested in trying some bluegrass on Monday nights, what band would Broderick suggest? Walt said the group playing that night was pretty good and he called Ben over to the phone. Without asking whether the rest of the basement band was available, he accepted the gig at the Rabbit’s Foot.

With the first Monday of November fast approaching, the basement gang (Eldridge, Auldridge, John Starling, Tom Gray and Dave Auldridge) wondered if John Duffey would be willing to come out of retirement. It was a stretch, as Duffey was already a legend from his years with the Country Gentlemen and was currently retired from music. But Starling gave Duffey a call anyway on Ben’s kitchen wall phone. Eldridge expected to hear Starling say something along the lines of “Well, OK, maybe we can pick sometime in the future.” Instead, what Ben heard was: “Next Monday? Yes, we can rehearse on Monday.”

“I nearly peed in my pants,” Eldridge later recalled.

And so it was that the unnamed band (with Duffey) started playing the Rabbit’s Foot – but the gig was short lived. One night, the Monday Night Football game was on the television near the bar with the volume turned up. Fan Richard Dress asked the barkeep to turn it down so he could hear the band. Within moments, Dress was escorted out the door by the scruff of his neck by the surly bartender. The band watched from the stage and quit on the spot, disgusted to see one of their fans treated so poorly. Ben and John Starling went over to the Red Fox to watch the rest of the Redskins game and tol Broderick what had happened.  Walt offered them a night at the Red Fox on the first Tuesday in January 1972.

Thus the Seldom Scene was born. (Dave Auldridge bowed out, knowing the mandolin and tenor duties were well covered by Duffey.) Within a few months, the line was down the block every week to hear the band and the group’s national fame grew with the release of its first album, Act 1, in 1972. The vocal blend of Starling, Duffey and Auldridge stopped listeners in their tracks. The material was progressive and it tended toward ballads that attracted new audiences while retaining enough upbeat songs to satisfy traditionalists. Eldridge’s banjo was an integral part of the sound as the quintet became world famous within just a few years.

Eldridge had an unerring ear for slower material that can be a challenge on the banjo. His solos are at once musical and elegant – always hitting the mark. Ben could play fast, of course. His monumental solo on the song Rider (Act 3 and Live at the Cellar Door) is one of the greatest contributions to modern bluegrass banjo and set the stage for the jam bands that would come decades later.

The Seldom Scene turned the standard band business model on end. It was agreed early on that the group would play locally, appear at a few nearby festivals — and never tour. They all kept their day jobs and played music for fun. Their informal stage presence, along with world-class playing and singing and Duffey’s unpredictable stage banter, kept fans returning week after week. In time, the Seldom Scene would venture further to perform but there was never a band bus, a fact that bassist Tom Gray credits with the group’s longevity.

Ben never had any interest in recording a solo album. He liked playing in a group and considered himself a “helper” to make the rest of the band sound better. Aside from 21 Seldom Scene albums, Ben appeared on a couple of side projects with Mike Auldridge, and very few others. His personal favorite was the Tony Rice’s record California Autumn and Eldridge felt it represented some of his best playing.

In 2023, Eldridge wrote On Banjo, Recollections, Licks and Solos. It is his only autobiographical account of a legendary 50-year career. Ben said he always enjoyed playing with the Seldom Scene, despite the untimely death of John Duffey in 1996 at age 62 and several personnel changes over the years. He retired from the group in 2016.

Ben writes: “My good friend and deejay Katy Daley called the Seldom Scene ‘the gateway drug to bluegrass.’ That’s a good description as we brought a lot of people to the music who otherwise would have passed it by. I’m proud to be part of the Washington, DC progressive bluegrass tradition and we have a good legacy. I hope people are listening to this stuff in another 60 years.”

Rest assured, Ben, we will.

Bluegrass Country radio extends its condolences to Ben’s wife Barbara and the entire Eldridge clan.

 Randy Barrett is a Washington, DC area singer, songwriter, banjoist, fiddler, teacher, author and president of the Bluegrass Country Foundation.  He is the co-author of Ben Eldridge’s book On Banjo – Recollections, Licks and Solos, available from Amazon.