Duffey was born in 1934 Washington. He grew up in Bethesda where the sound of a banjo he heard on the radio made him fall hard for what was then called “hillbilly” music. He was to pick up — and pick on — the mandolin.
Growing up as he did far from the hollows of Appalachia, Duffey over time forged a music that appealed to suburbanites and urbanites like himself. With his bands, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, Duffey changed the way bluegrass was played and found it new fans.
“They hadn’t grown up on a farm,” co-author Keplinger said of Duffey and his bandmates. “They hadn’t grown up working fields and making hay. They’d grown up in a much more urban environment. Some aspect of the music connected with them, but they had a different sensibility about the way they approached the music. I think John Duffey was at the forefront of that.”
Washington proved the perfect incubator for this music. Not only was it home to a generation of people whose parents had moved to the capital from the bluegrass belt in search of work, it also had middle-class professionals open to new sounds. It had a support system in the form of clubs that booked bluegrass and radio stations that played it.
Bluegrass “was much more traditional when [Duffey] started,” co-author Moore said. “He liked new music. He liked folk music. He was fascinated by Bob Dylan. He was one of the first bluegrass people to bring that music into the folk movement.”
He sought out new music but also visited the Lomax folklife collection at the Library of Congress to find old songs that could be recast.
Duffey wasn’t a virtuoso on the mandolin, but he had an identifiable style. It wasn’t just what he played, but how he played it.
Said Moore, “He would tell almost every mandolin player the same thing: ‘Well, you’re pretty good. Sometimes I’d say you’re better than me. But you’ve got to learn how to sell it. You can’t just stand there and play the notes.’”
While many traditional bluegrass players had a respectful — if grim-faced — stage presence, Duffey thought a musician should be an entertainer. If his runs on the mandolin fretboard ended in disaster, he’d simply play the same thing again, suggesting he’d meant to do it all along.
Though surrounded by exceptional other musicians — who played guitar, bass, banjo and dobro — Duffey was the leader of the band, the onstage emcee who joked between songs and shot down hecklers. Later in his career he took to wearing Zubaz pants, the brightly-colored and busily-patterned garments favored by professional wrestlers.
Duffey was a bit of a wrestler himself. He could come across as bombastic, intimidating to other musicians, scary to fans who wanted to meet him. Moore thinks this hid an inner shyness.
Of course, it was how Duffey sounded that won him so many fans. He had a four-octave range and possessed a high tenor so distinctive it could raise the hair on the back of listeners’ necks or bring a tear to their eyes. One of the standout songs by the Seldom Scene is “Wait a Minute.” The harmonies are so tight you can’t get a knife blade between them.
Duffey and the Seldom Scene famously played every Thursday night at the Birchmere in Alexandria for 22 years. They were as big as it was possible to get in bluegrass. The fact that they were no bigger was down to Duffey. He hated to tour and wouldn’t play the games the music business demands of its artists.
Duffey died of a heart attack in 1996. He was 62. Central to “John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life” is material from a wide-ranging, four-hour interview Moore conducted with Duffey in 1984 at the musician’s Arlington home. In the book, Duffey’s quotes are italicized. It reminded me of the way the words of Jesus Christ are printed in red in the Bible.
How influential was John Duffey? So influential that his music spoke to a young Japanese musician named Akira Otsuka, a member of Bluegrass 45, the first Japanese bluegrass band to tour North America.
Last year, Smithsonian Folkways released “Epilogue,” a tribute album to Duffey produced by Otsuka, with contributions by top bluegrass players. It includes a version of the spooky, spectral “Bringing Mary Home” originally recorded by Duffey’s Country Gentlemen. The song is recorded on the tribute album by John Starling, a bandmate in the Seldom Scene who died in May.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.