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February 16, 2009

Mike Auldridge - Dobro / Blues and Bluegrass

Nowadays, there's lots of talk about dobro-master Jerry Douglas. And rightly so, he's an immensely talented instrumentalist who's one of the most in-demand musicians in the country, and plays with impeccable skill. But somehow, though he isn't as hot (chop-wise or popularity-wise), I find Mike Auldridge's playing more tasteful and satisfying. I shouldn't badmouth Flux, because his early work especially is amazing (I'll post some someday), and he can play so fast and clean that it makes you do an auditory double-take, but... if he plays slow it always ends up sounding sappy. Not so, for Mike, who's version of Summertime included here is probably my second-favorite of all time (after a musical-saw version that will be posted in due time). Anyway, enough of my words. Here's what other folks say about him:

Mike Auldridge is the country's best-known master of the dobro, a modified guitar much in demand in bluegrass and country music. In fact, the modest Auldridge helped to rescue the dobro from certain extinction--at the time he began to play the instrument in the 1950s it was not being manufactured anymore. Today Auldridge's dobro is an essential component of the Seldom Scene bluegrass band and is heard backing up such artists as Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Jonathon Edwards on their albums. Additionally, Auldridge has released a number of solo albums that have sold extremely well, at least by the standards set for bluegrass music.

The dobro is a twentieth-century invention of John Dopyera and his brothers (hence the name do-bro). It is essentially a guitar, usually made of laminated maple, with a raised bridge and a resonator cone placed in the traditional sounding hole. The musician plays the instrument by sliding a bar up and down the neck while picking the strings with the other hand, for a sound reminiscent of the pedal steel guitar but with a greater range of fluidity. The dobro was created to provide amplified guitar music to country bands before the era of sophisticated electronics. Its usefulness therefore took a dive in the 1940s and 1950s when technicians perfected the pedal steel guitar.

Auldridge is the rare younger musician who was exposed to dobro music as a youth. He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1938 and moved to the suburb of Kensington, Maryland, while he was still a child. He was not born into a musical family, but his uncle, Ellsworth Cousins, had played dobro with Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s. Auldridge heard his uncle play at family gatherings, and gradually he too became a disciple of old-time country music.

By the time he was in his teens, Auldridge could play guitar and banjo. His first love was still dobro, however, and he spent many hours trying to find one to buy. The artist told Pickin' magazine that in the early 1950s "it was impossible to find a Dobro. I used to go around to pawn shops and music stores asking if any of them had one." Eventually Auldridge made his own instrument, which he used until 1961, when the Dopyera brothers began manufacturing dobros again.

Auldridge's hero as a youth was Josh Graves, a dobro player who worked with Flatt & Scruggs during the 1950s. Through many painful years of trial-and-error practice, Auldridge taught himself to play the dobro, principally by slowing Flatt & Scruggs records down and imitating Graves's licks. Auldridge has estimated that he spent eight years perfecting his basic technique and many, many more years developing the unique bell-like tones associated with his work. Although he minored in music theory while a student at the University of Maryland, he taught himself dobro by ear and only rarely applied the college lessons to his craft.

Auldridge began playing bluegrass professionally as a teenager, but he simply could not envision himself performing for a living. Instead he took a day job as a commercial artist for the Washington Star newspaper and worked there for more than a decade. In the meantime he spent weekends playing dobro with Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, quitting that band when it began to impinge on his regular job. In 1971 he joined a small group of ex-professional and amateur bluegrass musicians in the Washington area for informal picking sessions. The group members decided to call themselves the Seldom Scene because, like Auldridge, they all had day jobs.

"It was going to be our weekly card game," Auldridge joked of his early days with the Seldom Scene. Instead the group--which also contains tenor John Duffey, banjo player Ben Eldridge, bassist Tom Gray, and guitarist Phil Rosenthal--became one of the most sought-after bluegrass acts in the country. In the early 1970s dobro was still a relative rarity in bluegrass bands; part of the Seldom Scene's success can certainly be traced to Auldridge, who wowed audiences with his virtuoso licks. Auldridge became so popular with bluegrass fans, and so revered for his playing, that his fellow Scene members called him "Larry the Legend." Before long most Seldom Scene albums featured an Auldridge solo.

Still Auldridge held on to his steady job with the Star, but finally fate intervened. The newspaper folded in 1976, and Auldridge found himself out of work. Free for the first time to devote himself entirely to music, the artist blossomed. He began to cut solo albums and made numerous trips to California and Nashville to work as a session musician for some of the top country entertainers. Among his new "customers" were Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the Country Gentlemen. Auldridge also continued his work with the Seldom Scene and prepared dobro lessons in a variety of formats for the many musicians who had become interested in the instrument.

"I always thought it would be nice but never dreamed it would be possible to make a living off of music," Auldridge told Pickin'. "In those [early] days it was a really limited audience compared to what it is now." Auldridge's career has indeed prospered in tandem with bluegrass music in general, but he is more than just another bluegrass musician. The dobro is a demanding instrument, and few if any pickers have mastered it like Auldridge has. The artist notes that he has been lucky to have chosen to learn dobro at a time when it was almost obsolete, but he has assured his fame by working hard every day to be the best dobro player alive.

"I get up in the morning, and half an hour after I'm out of bed, I'm playing," Auldridge told The Big Book of Bluegrass. "That's all I do. I probably play ten hours a day. I hope it doesn't go away some day. I worked for a long time at a day job, wishing I could play music and have the time for it. Now I'm like a guy who was poor all his life, and all of a sudden came into a lot of money. I've got this time, and I just can't learn enough about music. I can't develop my technique enough.... I'm always working on it. I love playing music."

Mike Auldridge is probably one of the most approachable musicians in the business. At bluegrass festivals he is often found surrounded by a cluster of would-be dobro players who are eager to glean information from a master. Auldridge's special brand of acoustic guitar--bluegrass with blends of country, jazz, and even big band--is likely to remain popular in years to come, especially since country music is moving back to its roots. Despite his success, however, the idea that he is the country's best dobro player does not sit well with Auldridge. He once told Pickin': "I just don't like to live up to anything. I just want to pick and have a good time."
- by Anne Janette Johnson

Year: 1972
Label: Takoma

Review by Eugene Chadbourne

Although not as cosmic as the solo guitar odysseys of John Fahey or Robbie Basho, the early-'70s recordings of this veteran dobro picker have an equal importance to the development of acoustic-stringed music in America. The skill with which Auldridge put together vehicles for his tremendously appealing soloing style, smoothly handling transitions between members of a large and star-studded cast of supporting characters, not only resulted in a boost in interest in the dobro, but the entire civilization of soloists on various instruments benefited from such obvious evidence of potential appeal, while the Washington, D.C., bluegrass scene never quite recovered from the legendary status of these recording sessions and the magical things that went on as the tapes rolled. This was the first of a pair of projects Auldridge created for Takoma; he cut the fine Blues & Bluegrass several years later, using many of the same musicians. In many ways these are like adjunct Seldom Scene recordings, as a few of that group's players show up. Things couldn't get off to a livelier start than the opening track, "Hillbilly Hula," a sheer delight in its combination of both Hawaiian and bluegrass genre trademarks. "Pickaway" is one of several bluegrass numbers that is out and out hardcore in the sense of sounding like the energy of that rock style is being referenced. The banjo picking on this track is wonderful. As the album proceeds the instrumentalists keep digging deeper and deeper, splashing musical imagery in a competition that suggests a group of crack photographers trying to outdo each other at a slide show. "Rolling Fog" comes in, atmosphere galore, right before the landing on "Dobro Island," most likely a place that fans of Auldridge would love to be stranded. The latter state is how some listeners might feel if forced to sit through the entire "House of the Rising Sun," the final selection and one of a only a few misfires in the program. Another dud is the saccharine "Greensleeves," played as if trying to entertain drunks at an Appalachian ski lodge, but of course this was the track that got all the NPR airplay.

Blues & Bluegrass
Year: 1974
Label: Takoma

Review by Eugene Chadbourne

Another winner from dobro master Mike Auldridge, this production must have seemed like a Hollywood blockbuster compared to the average Takoma release, many of them solo guitar efforts. Even on its own terms, this album suffered from the drawbacks of the masterpiece mentality and the carte blanche budget, at least on relative terms. Auldridge again juggles several different ensemble combinations, the challenge being to create an easily flowing and dramatically coherent set of pieces, as he had done so gracefully on the 1972 set simply entitled Dobro. But here, the director has earned a bigger trailer based on the huge success of this previous release. Although instrumentals are once again the main fare, there is more of a shot taken at doing vocal tracks, with several heavy-hitters from the '70s pop ballpark brought in to display their imagined ease with roots material. Eclecticism may keep the listener on the edge of their seat; early on, there is a cover of "Killing Me Softly," not at all bluegrass in delivery, that is every bit as interesting as the '90s version by the Fugees and indeed would make a fine combination for that record in a mash-up. "This Ain't Grass," sounding like an admonition to a crooked dope dealer, is an example of the slick and complex progressive bluegrass instrumentals that are the main course of these projects, allowing space for some brilliant picking as well as a sense that some kind of acoustic hillbilly cousin of electric jazz fusion is hiding in the closet. Many of these arrangements have stood up very well to the test of time, as generally does most music in which the players' minds are seriously engaged. It can be a jolt moving from such material to the Hollywood hokinesss of a Linda Ronstadt vocal or the too-easy silliness of the "Walk Don't Run" cover, but this is one of the problems Auldridge worked so hard to overcome when putting together such ambitious collections of material. Here he moves from spotlighting Mike Auldridge the dobro player to Auldridge the record producer and studio genius, so of course there's a bit of a letdown. He certainly makes a good case for himself choosing material, overlooking the odd dud and coming up with nifty instrumentals from the likes of dobro forefather Tut Taylor and unique country picker Roy Nichols and a fascinating country tune from fine songwriter Dick Curless.

Twofer reissue:
Mike Auldridge - Dobro / Blues and Bluegrass
Ace 1998 / Takoma 2000

Review by Rick Anderson

This welcome reissue brings together the first two solo albums by Seldom Scene dobro player Mike Auldridge, each of which was groundbreaking in a different way. While "progressive bluegrass" was already a fully established musical convention by 1972, when Dobro was originally issued, instrumental bluegrass arrangements of material like "Greensleeves" and "House of the Rising Sun" were a bit unusual even in the progressive context, and, to be honest, were not quite as successful as his brilliantly flashy rendition of Lester Flatt's "Pickaway" or the weepy country standard "Silver Threads." The second album presented on this reissue, Blues & Bluegrass, is a bit more consistently rewarding. Most of the tracks are Seldom Scene performances in all but name, with the occasional addition of such stellar guests as Vassar Clements, Ricky Skaggs, and David Bromberg. This album veers happily between barnburning bluegrass ("New Camptown Races," "8 More Miles to Louisville") and soulful blues numbers ("Summertime," "Struttin' the Blues"), with occasional detours into sappy pop ("Killing Me Softly") and, believe it or not, surf-bluegrass fusion ("Walk Don't Run"). All of it manages to be lots and lots of fun. Highly recommended.

1 Hillbilly Hula - Carmen - 0:50
2 Tennessee Stud - Driftwood - 3:23
3 It's Over - Traditional - 3:03
4 Pick Away - Flatt, Jordan - 2:24
5 Rollin' Fog - Craft - 2:47
6 Dobro Island - Graves, Roland - 3:06
7 Train - Auldridge - 3:37
8 Take Me - Jones, Payne - 2:44
9 Greensleeves - Traditional - 2:46
10 Silver Threads - Traditional - 3:49
11 Rock Bottom - Auldridge - 2:33
12 Jamboree - Graves, Williams - 2:50
13 House of the Rising Sun - Traditional - 4:09
14 New Camptown Races - Wakefield - 2:13
15 Mexican Rose - Hamlet, Nichols - 2:41
16 Killing Me Softly With His Song - Fox, Gimbel - 2:58
17 This Ain't Grass - Taylor - 2:40
18 8 More Miles to Louisville - Jones - 2:39
19 The Sum of Marcie's Blues - Feller - 3:53
20 Bottom Dollar - Finley, Shaver - 2:46
21 Struttin' the Blues - Auldridge - 2:10
22 Panhandle Country - Monroe - 2:18
23 Summertime - Gershwin, Gershwin, Heyward - 3:05
24 Walk, Don't Run - Smith - 2:59
25 Everybody Slides - Auldridge, Bromberg, George - 4:19

not my rip | mp3 ~200kbps vbr | w/ covers | 107mb
slip & slide.

& check out Seldom Scene stuff at Uncle Gil's

official website
, probably designed in the 90s

by the way, if anyone has a copy of this magazine, i would love to see it. especially the stuff on Basho and Dagar

1 comment:

joetomrud said...

Thank you very much for this. I have Dobro on vinyl, but no way of playing it any more (familiar story!)

I also have the Mike Auldridge album on Flying Fish records from 1976 - does anyone have this album?

In fact, thinking about it, wouldn't it be ideal if all the great but unavailable music on the Flying Fish label (Don Lange, The Red Clay Ramblers, Peter Rowan, Bryan Bowers, Mary McCaslin, Lorraine Duisit, Guy Carawan, Peter Alsop, Steve Lyon, Si Khan, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Anne Romaine, Norman Blake, Freeman and Lange, all in my own collection) was available somewhere as good quality downloads.

Yes, I did look them up, I am that sad.... oh well.

Joe in Dublin