WHEN T. MICHAEL Coleman brought his electric bass and original songs (and grayless hair) to the Seldom Scene in 1988, it was unclear how he would fit in with the bluegrass band's three founding members -- John Duffey, Mike Auldridge and Ben Eldridge. Well, his electric bass has a very clean, "acoustic" sound; his songs sound like they were written right after World War II (and his dark mustache matches Eldridge's). Coleman's second album with the Scene, "Scenic Roots," features his relaxed, rolling pulse beneath the picking and three of his best songs yet.
The Seldom Scene dedicate the album to Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, and the album has a well-seasoned, traditional sound, even though most of the material was written by contemporary songwriters. There's a train song and a pair of gospel hymns, but most of the album is devoted to new-love and lost-love songs. Appropriately, the band forgoes high-speed picking races to concentrate on the romantic vocals; relative newcomer Lou Reid's terrific tenor is supported by impeccable four-part harmonies.
Three-fifths of the Seldom Scene have recorded an album as Auldridge, Reid & Coleman. With Robbie Magruder on drums and Jon Carroll on piano, "High Time" has a far chunkier rhythm section than the usual Seldom Scene project and sounds more like a pop-bluegrass album by Reid's old employer Ricky Skaggs. Reid is isolated more as a lead vocalist here, and he has the voice to compete on Skaggs's territory. Reid's heartbroken vocals are then reinforced by Auldridge's forlorn, weary-sounding dobro and pedal steel guitar. The material is divided between the old (Monroe, Hank Williams, Louvin Brothers, Delmore Brothers) and the new (Guy Clark, Coleman, Reid), but it all has the punchy accessibility of anything on country radio today.
Reid and Coleman also play prominent roles on Mike Auldridge's seventh solo album, "Treasures Untold." The title song was written by Auldridge's uncle, Ellsworth T. Cozzens, who played steel guitar and wrote songs for Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s. That connection is reinforced by two more Rodgers songs and an overall feel that recalls an era when commercial country music and mountain string-band music overlapped a great deal. Nine of the dozen cuts are vocal numbers, and the leads are divided among Auldridge, Doc Watson, Tony Rice and John Starling. Auldridge's dobro is so expressive, though, that it sounds like a duet vocalist on every song.
THE SELDOM SCENE -- "Scenic Roots" (Sugar Hill).
AULDRIDGE, REID & COLEMAN -- "High Time" (Sugar Hill).
MIKE AULDRIDGE -- "Treasures Untold" (Sugar Hill). The Seldom Scene and Doc Watson appear Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere. The Seldom Scene also appears every Thursday at the Birchmere.