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

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.

"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 me at 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 like-minded 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."

Bill Friskics-Warren is a freelance music writer living in Nashville and a regular contributor to The Washington Post.

Mike Auldridge performs with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Institute of Musical Traditions -Takoma Park Community Center. 7500 Maple Ave. Takoma Park. 301-754-3611

© 2011 The Washington Post Company