Once Seldom Scene, guitarist John Starling, dobro virtuoso Mike Auldridge and stand-up bassist Tom Gray have reappeared as John Starling and Carolina Star, reconstituting a musical partnership stretching back 3 1/2 decades. That's when the trio began playing together in the progressive bluegrass quintet known for stunning musicianship, rich harmonies, inclusive repertoire and two stellar singers, John Duffey with his stratospheric tenor and Starling with his smooth, soulfully emotive baritone.
"The reaction's been very heartwarming," Auldridge says of the group's reemergence. "It's like in the early days of the Scene: We're just doing this because it's fun, but people are making us realize that they missed us, and that's really nice to hear."
Carolina Star, which also includes mandolin player Jimmy Gaudreau and fiddler Rickie Simpkins, will celebrate the release of its debut album, "Slidin' Home," Friday at the Birchmere, for years the home base for a group of musicians that intended to remain local and low-key but ended up as one of the most revered and influential ensembles in bluegrass history. The Seldom Scene still operates, with banjoist Ben Eldridge the only founding member still aboard. Starling left the Scene in 1977 to pursue a medical career, returning for a couple of years in the early '90s after relocating his practice to Virginia; it was only after his recent retirement that he decided to return to music.
"Music to me had always been a therapy," Starling says, but "I knew enough people in it and knew their frustrations, had seen them rant about record labels and the music business and saw where, with some people, it just destroyed their musical ability, they got so upset with how things were handled.
"So I decided to pursue medicine and still try to use music as a therapy as opposed to worrying about how much money I was going to make," he adds. "Plus, I always like to do it my way."
Gray and Auldridge left the Seldom Scene in 1987 and 1996, respectively. According to Auldridge, the Scene's historic importance is something he recognizes now, "but back then, I didn't have a clue, though I remember meeting someone in California and telling him how much I loved Flatt & Scruggs when I was a kid, and he said, 'You know, you guys are my Flatt & Scruggs. I didn't even know who they were until I heard you.' "
"It was one of the first times I realized that we were bringing a lot of people into bluegrass for the first time. Now it's real evident we were a pretty significant link in the history of all this stuff."
Gray has even deeper links. In the '60s, he was part of the classic Country Gentlemen lineup with mandolinist Duffey (considered the father of "newgrass"), Charlie Waller and Eddie Adcock. Gray and Duffey left the Gentlemen in the mid-'60s, tired of endless travel and low pay. Duffey repaired instruments, while Gray began a career as a cartographer for National Geographic.
In 1969, they started attending a weekly jam session in mathematician-banjoist Eldridge's Bethesda home, along with then-Army surgeon Starling and Washington Star graphic artist Auldridge. The music was good enough that Duffey agreed to come out of his self-imposed retirement, and in 1971 the Seldom Scene was born, with "Duffey rules" embodied in their name: They'd play only one night a week locally (Thursdays at the Red Fox and, later, the Birchmere), do occasional concerts and festivals on weekends, make records -- and keep their day jobs.
"John would say, 'It's just boys' night out,' " Auldridge recalls. "The whole thing for us was just a lark in those days; we never thought we'd be actual musicians. The Star had to let me go, and I was forced into the life of a musician or I would never have had the nerve to try it."
Almost against their will, the Seldom Scene became one of the most important ensembles of the '70s, influencing a generation of musicians that included Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs, the mom and pop of country's neo-traditional movement. They released a string of critically acclaimed albums on Rebel before Starling left to practice his specialty -- head and neck surgery -- in Alabama.
Blessed with one of the most moving and supple voices in bluegrass, Starling did make three albums, beginning with 1977's "Long Time Gone." Produced by Little Feat's Lowell George and featuring pal Harris's backing vocals on half the tracks, it was a blend of progressive bluegrass, country and honky-tonk. That mix continued on 1979's "Waitin' on a Southern Train" and 1991's "Spring Training," a Grammy-winning collaboration with Carl Jackson. But Starling never could take time away from his practice, or his family, to support the albums.
Auldridge, who left the Scene for the spinoff band Chesapeake (which included Gaudreau), describes Carolina Star as "very reminiscent of early Seldom Scene but without a banjo." The new group "kind of fell together accidentally, just like the original Seldom Scene did," he adds, starting with a reunion of the original Seldom Scene (with Gaudreau standing in for Duffey, who died in 1996).
A name was important: Many think Chesapeake failed because it didn't take advantage of its star players' names. Briefly, they were the Seldom Seniors, though, Starling says, "we didn't want to compete with the Scene still out there working, and we didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Plus Ben was in both."
"The one I liked best was GAS [for Gray, Auldridge, Starling], but the ladies in our lives didn't like that very much," Starling says. Same with SAG, and "we decided to stay away from Senile Seniors." It was after Gaudreau and Simpkins (both veterans of the Tony Rice Unit) signed on that the decision was made to make now-retired Dr. Starling the frontman.
"He fought it for a while, didn't want the heat on him," Auldridge says. "But to me, it's all about the fact that John Starling's vocals are back on the scene. He's the most overlooked guy in the business because he was a doctor -- he was busy making money when he should have been singing. He could have been Merle Haggard! And he still sounds great, too."
The current name comes from a Hugh Moffat song Starling first recorded in 1979, "about a woman working in a factory taking care of two children while her husband's down in Nashville trying to become a country music star. It's about how the real Carolina Stars are our ladies," Starling explains. "But that's very metaphoric, and I'd just as soon it stay that way."
Oddly enough, the song "Carolina Star" is not included on "Slidin' Home," which was released Tuesday. The album opens with "Waitin' for a Train," the Jimmie Rodgers chestnut about trying to get home. That song has familial echoes: Auldridge's uncle, Ellsworth Cozzens, played dobro on the original 1929 recording, made during Rodgers's brief residency in Washington. "I'm starting to feel like a relic here with so much history coming around," Auldridge jokes.
Starling is joined by Harris on "In My Hour of Darkness," a song she wrote with Gram Parsons. Harris met Parsons here and developed her love for bluegrass and traditional country at jam sessions in Starling's living room. It's also where Harris met Skaggs, whose instrumental "Irish Spring" is featured on the new album, along with the string-romp "South Riding Tango" by Gaudreau and Simpkins. Carolina Star serves as Harris's acoustic band when she tours doing her classic repertoire from the '70s and '80s.
Elsewhere, Starling delivers a world-weary cover of the Little Feat classic "Willin' " by George. He'd originally wanted to do "Willin' " with the Scene until Gray "suggested we not do it," Starling says.
"I had three teenage sons and a daughter, and I didn't think we ought to be doing songs glorifying drug runners, which is what that song does," Gray explains.
"I said . . . the word is 'wheat, rice and wine,' " Starling recalls.
"I appreciate that John did back off then," Gray says, "so if he wanted to do it now, fine. The kids are grown." Somewhere, there's a tape of George doing an acoustic version of "Willin' " in the early '70s on WHFS with Linda Ronstadt and Starling providing harmonies.
Another twist: "Slidin' Home," released on the Seldom Scene's old label, Rebel, reunites Starling and company with Grammy Award-winning producer-engineer and audio technology pioneer George Massenburg. Among his credits: engineering Auldridge's first solo album, 1972's "Dobro," and the Seldom Scene's 1974 album "Old Train." The studio approach was classical yet modern: tracking live with a minimum of overdubs, using high-resolution digital recording and mixing techniques to create a warm, living room sound. Massenburg has also worked with Little Feat, George, Skaggs and Harris, as well as Ronstadt and Dolly Parton (he produced both Trio albums). Says Auldridge, "George is a big part of the historical circle we seem to be running in."
John Starling and Carolina Star
Sounds like: Widely heard? Mike Auldridge performs "Carolina Star" in all four groups he plays with, including the Skylighters with Gaudreau and Eric Brace, the Good Deale Bluegrass Band and the Auldridge-O'Dell-Walls-Simpkins Band (with Star-mate Simpkins). "We're all a bunch of contractors," Auldridge jokes, adding that "Starling bemoans the fact that nobody wants to hire a lead singer." Gray is in six other groups, including the Country Gentlemen Reunion Band, Eddie & Martha Adcock, Jay Armsworthy & Eastern Tradition, Randy Barrett & the Barretones and the Federal Jazz Commission.