And there they are, striding to the stage — John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, John Starling. And finally, taking the far right side of the stage with his Dobro, Mike Auldridge, a Kensington native who died of cancer Saturday at age 73. He holds the Dobro tight to his chest as he steps to the mike and sings with Duffey and Starling in perfect three-part harmony. “Way down in the Blue Ridge Mountains / way down where the tall pines grow / lives my sweetheart of the mountains / she’s my little Georgia rose.” No instruments yet, as their voices wrap up the word “rose,” putting a little bend in the middle of its one syllable. Then holy bluegrass hell breaks loose as Eldridge uncorks his banjo, Gray slaps his upright bass, Starling swipes his flatpick across his old Martin guitar, Duffey squeezes sparks from his mandolin (teeny in his thick-armed embrace) and Auldridge holds his Dobro resophonic guitar horizontally now, across his waist, running the steel bar up and down the neck with his left hand, picking at the strings with the fingers and thumb of his right. It’s a glorious sound, and the kid doesn’t know it at the time but it’s a sound that’s changing the world of bluegrass. All he knows is that it’s changing him, making him want to be up on that stage, singing those harmonies, playing those instruments. Most of all he wants to be Mike Auldridge, with the long angled sideburns, the pressed jeans (creased down the middle, please) overpolished slant-heeled boots, the easy Paul Newman smile, the Steve McQueen cool.
That kid was me, and I can conjure those Thursday nights at the Birchmere in a flash, and often do when I ponder the whys of having chosen a life of making music rather than writing about it (which I once did in these very pages). I blame the Seldom Scene above all other influences, and I blame Mike above all the members of the Scene. On my first day of college, I heard a banjo being played down the dormitory hallway. I followed the sound and quickly formed a band with the banjo’s owner, with me singing and playing guitar. Thus began my quest to find the magic the Scene whipped up every Thursday night at the Birchmere, their seemingly effortless blend of virtuosity, showmanship, comedy, aching ballads and barreling instrumentals, and their ability to leave everyone wanting more, even at the end of a long night of music.
When Starling left the band and the 19-year-old me heard they were auditioning new singers, I fantasized about being up on that stage, Duffey and Eldridge to my right, Gray behind me, Auldridge to my left. It didn’t happen. I didn’t even try. The band went on without me, through various incarnations (with Eldridge continuing to lead a version today). So imagine my joy nearly 25 years years later as I stood on the stage of the Birchmere (the current, bigger one, but still) and got to play and sing with Mike Auldridge standing on my left. We called ourselves the Skylighters, and we were up there with two bandmates from my group, Last Train Home (Jim Gray and Martin Lynds), and legendary bluegrass mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau. I looked over at the man with the Dobro and grinned like the kid I somehow still was. His sideburns had become a trim white beard; his playing was even better and more elegant than decades before.