A 16-year-old kid sits at a table by the back wall of the Birchmere, the original one on Four Mile Run, tucked between body shops and transmission joints. It’s 1976 and it’s a Thursday night. One of many on which this teenager somehow persuaded his parents to give him the car so he could cross the Potomac to go see his favorite band. The low ceilings amplify the clatter of plates of burgers and pitchers of beer. The lights go down and the chattery hubbub turns into whistles and cheers. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Seldom Scene!”
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.
That all happened after I’d run into Auldridge at the Birchmere one night when he was playing with Emmylou Harris. I introduced myself and he said he knew of my music and my writing. I was flattered. I was nervous. I was talking to one of my heroes. “Maybe you’d be up for playing a show with me sometime?” Did I really say that? I sure did. Did he really say, “Sure, man, that would be fun. Just give me a call”? He sure did.
I did call him, and he was eager to play. I learned that above anything else, Mike was a musician who wanted to make music. So when we both could, we did. First with the Skylighters, then, after I moved to Nashville, we made a record called “Master Sessions” with my friend and duo partner Peter Cooper, where Auldridge and pedal-steel legend Lloyd Green were the titular masters. But more than the music-making, it was the hanging out with the man I could now call Mike that was so fun. The music journalist in me would question him about his life and his musical history, and he would happily oblige me with tales and anecdotes. By then I had learned how Mike had transformed his instrument from a little-regarded side note in bluegrass music into a stunningly beautiful voice in its own right, and he has influenced everyone who ever picked up a Dobro. (In a noisy bar on the coast of Brittany one night years ago, I heard a French bluegrass band that featured a Dobro player. During a break between sets I talked to him and told him I was from Washington. “Ah, you must know Mike Auldridge, yaiss? Ee ees zee best, non?”)
Mike peppered his easy conversation with salty phrases that can’t make it into a newspaper. He would explode in his contagious laugh even as he was dishing on his musical comrades. He talked of the fraught time when he was leaving the Scene and forming Chesapeake. Of his dislike of strange foods in strange lands, and how he loved being home. He admitted to his attack of nerves when the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe (famous for his antipathy toward the Dobro), invited him to play on a recording session. He asked about Nashville and wondered if he shouldn’t have moved down there in the ’80s, when former Washington talent such as Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas were making their mark on the bluegrass and country music scene there. He admitted that Lloyd Green was his musical hero and that making a record with him had been a dream come true, but that it also made him feel “like a nervous schoolgirl.”
As the cancer spread, Mike talked about the frustration he felt as it became harder to do things he’d always done. In one of his last performances, earlier this year with Vince Gill at the Birchmere, Mike asked Gill if it would be okay to sit while he played. Gill called for six more stools onstage so the whole band could sit down that night. Although his body was giving out, Mike kept living life in a big way. He was ecstatic about traveling to see his first grandchild in September. That same month he finished a resophonic guitar summit album with Douglas and Rob Ickes. He was humble in October upon receiving the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship grant, but happy while playing at the awards ceremony concert.
When I wrote to ask him to join me in the recording studio earlier this year, he wrote back describing his radiation treatments, his chest pain and his general fatigue. Then: “But I’m not complaining. I can still pick and still have the passion light on ‘high’ so all is (almost) well. Let’s do it. Tell me where and when.”
A visitation will be held Thursday at 3 p.m. at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Silver Spring.
Brace is a Grammy-nominated producer and musician, and a former Washington Post night-life columnist.