D.C. native Mike Auldridge set the standard for Dobro players

MAJOR INFLUENCE: Musician Mike 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.
MAJOR INFLUENCE: Musician Mike 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. (Matt Mcclain)
By Bill Friskics-Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2011; 1:56 PM

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, bowl-shaped 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 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.

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