Bluegrass music is meant to be heard while sitting on a grassy field at a sunny summer festival. That’s the belief of fair-weather bluegrass fans whose mandolins and banjos go into hibernation between Labor Day and Memorial Day.
Colorado’s hardcore bluegrassers will emerge for the 35th annual Midwinter Bluegrass Festival. They don’t care that it takes place at a suburban hotel ballroom instead of a pretty mountain town. These folks are there for the music — to listen, mingle and to play.
Rather than a creek to jump in, there is a swimming pool at Northglenn’s Ramada Inn. There will be no wind, rain, sunburn or dust clouds kicked up by dancers. Instead of campfire sessions, groups in the lobby will be pickin’ the heck out of “Sally Goodin.”
This is a perfect place to appreciate a legacy band like the Seldom Scene, which appeals to traditionalists and progressives alike.
The Seldom Scene was originally formed in 1971 in Bethesda, Maryland, by guys who worked professional jobs and only performed on weekends. Founded by John Starling, John Duffey, Mike Auldridge (all of whom have passed), Ben Eldridge and Tom Gray, the band was devoted to multi-part harmonies, soulful singing and expert musicianship in the Bill Monroe tradition.
However, their song choices veered from country music to rock, folk and pop. Their extended acoustic, psychedelic excursions on songs like “(I Know You) Rider” essentially launched the modern progressive bluegrass sound that now features bands like The Infamous Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain String Band. The Seldom Scene were a breath of fresh air to a stodgy genre.
Over the decades the Seldom Scene has been home to a string of notable pickers who eventually replaced the original members. Lou Reid (not to be mistaken for Lou Reed, of Velvet Underground fame) was a fan long before he became a member, contributing vocals, mandolin and guitar.
“In 1972 I was on a tour bus and we put on an 8-track tape of the first Seldom Scene album. I’ve always loved their music from that time. This was really smooth bluegrass with great singing,” Reid says, calling from his home near Union Grove, North Carolina.
“When I joined the band for the first time in 1986, it was pretty easy to sing with them because I already knew a lot of the songs,” Reid says.
Besides Reid, the Seldom Scene also features guitarist Dudley Connell, Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, dobroist Fred Travers, and Ronnie Simpkins on bass — all pickers with decades on their resumes.
“The band members and the music has changed over the years, but it always sounds like the Seldom Scene. Folks seem to think we’re doing a good job at keeping the spirit going,” Reid says, noting that three or more generations come out for shows.
Reid likes the contained nature of indoor winter bluegrass festivals because of the proximity with the fans.
“A lot of people and their families get involved in these festivals and pass along the love of playing and singing. When I was coming up, I was shy and waited until the end of the line to meet my heroes. So we’re always happy to meet people at the merch table or in a workshop,” he says.
At the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival, Reid and friends will lead a workshop. Audience members usually ask questions, often about how to play specific licks.
“Some things we know how to do but we can’t explain it, so we just play or sing it,” Reid says.
For their three sets over two days, Seldom Scene has 25 albums of originals and covers to draw from, including favorites such as “Walk Through the World With Me,” “110 in the Shade,” “Muddy Water” and the signature tune, “Wait a Minute.”
The band continues to record, including 2019’s Changes.
“We looked at folk songs from the ’60s and early ’70s. There was real poetry in those lyrics,” Reid says. On the album they reinvent Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” plus tunes by Dan Fogelberg, Phil Ochs and John Prine.
“We always try to bring folks up and then bring ’em down with the sad songs,” Reid says.
Three Days of Twang in Northglenn
The Midwinter Bluegrass Festival features a fiddle contest, band scramble, gospel music sets, instrumental and vocal workshops and a jam for pickers under age 20. Niwot banjoist Pete Wernick will lead a beginners’ jam workshop. Featured bands include two recent Colorado-born winners of the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, Wood Belly and Bowregard, plus the Price Sisters Band, the Canadian Slocan Ramblers, Savage Hearts, Ft. Collins’ Bluegrass Patriots, Songs From The Road Band and Durango’s Bar D Wranglers.
ON THE BILL: Midwinter Bluegrass Festival. Feb. 14-16, Ramada Inn, 10 E. 120th Ave., Northglenn, midwinterbluegrass.com