REVIEW BY: Aaron Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/21/2012
Act 1 from 1972 can be seen as a turning point for bluegrass music. With this seminal work, the Seldom Scene established a new sound for bluegrass music and began a career proved that jazz, classic rock, blues, and country could be played in the bluegrass style with ease. Ironically, the group had no intention of becoming the icons they became. Their name itself was derived from the fact that they only played one show a week as a rule. The original five members had no intention of pursuing commercial success and in fact intended to keep their day jobs.Velvet baritone lead vocalist John Starling was a pediatrician, tenor vocalist and mandolin player John Duffy had played with the Country Gentlemen but at the time had retired to repair instruments, banjo player Ben Eldridge was a mathematician, dobroist Mike Auldridge a graphic designer, and bassist Tom Gray was a cartographer. What's more these guys did not hail from the mountains of Appalachia as so many bluegrass artists had. Instead, they came from outside of Washington DC where for years a strong undercurrent of bluegrass traditions brewed. To hear Act One, they sound like a group that had played for years professionally and initiated a run of several years of quality albums.
From the very first song, it is clear that the Seldom Scene were going to be different. Look at the powerhouse bluegrass artists of 1972, Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, Flatt & Scruggs – none of them were playing music like the Scene. "Raised By The Railroad Line" is a catchy tune with an in-your-face dobro solo that uses an unusual verse chorus bridge structure that is unheard of in bluegrass music. Thus song being the first of the Scene's recorded output is fitting because the train would come to be a common fixture in the group's songs. Additionally, "City Of New Orleans,” “500 Miles,” and “What Am I Doing Hanging Around” all revolve around the central theme of railroad travel, and many more would come.
The second track, “Darling Corey," introduces the listener to John Duffy's rafter-like tenor that is doubly enhanced by reverb. Even this sets the Scene apart from other bluegrass artists of the time. Reverb is used heavily on the Scene's albums to enhance Duffy's tenor, background vocals in general, and to add to Auldrige's dobro. Even grassers today do not take full advantage of this effect and not many who do use it as effectively.
A cover of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" demonstrates the Seldom Scene's ability to bring mainstream pop music and contemporary songwriting to the bluegrass world which is another innovation that the group would utilize over and over again in their career. While the Scene would produce a few originals throughout their career they were adept at pulling from contemporary writers in folk, country, and pop to produce stellar performances.
Alongside those contemporary tracks are two Bill Monroe classics. "With Body And Soul" and "Summertime Is Past And Gone" both feature John Duffy singing in the stratosphere and prove that the Seldom Scene's bluegrass roots are just as strong as their penchant for pop. Similarly, Act 1 contains two gospel numbers, although "Joshua" a bluegrass rendition of "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho" is an instrumental. And even though "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown" has no biblical basis, it is a beautiful song nonetheless. These gospel tracks, as with the train themed songs, are the first in a long line of strong religious music that the Scene has sprinkled throughout their career.
Act 1 is one of those albums that are good for non-bluegrass listeners to take a listen to. It is easy to see why the Seldom Scene has garnered such a huge fan base that stretches beyond traditional bluegrass lovers. Act 1 is no stutter start to their 40 year career. It is an out of the gate sprint that they built into impressive success. Song selection, musicianship, and spectacular vocals bring it all together for this album.
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