Sunday, September 3, 2023
Dudley Connell (guitar) – Lou Reid (mandolin, guitar) – Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle)
Fred Travers (Dobro) – Ronnie Simpkins (bass)
Since forming nearly 50 years ago, The Seldom Scene has brought both freewheeling joy and immaculate musicianship to their inventive take on bluegrass, offering up spirited interpretations of songs from limitless genres. On their new album Changes, the band sharpens their focus to a highly specific body of work: songs first recorded in the 1960s and very early ’70s, rooted in the archetypal storytelling of classic singer-songwriters. And in taking on the music of iconic artists like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, The Seldom Scene perform a sort of subtle magic: transforming the most stripped-bare songs into harmony-rich and elaborately arranged compositions, while wholly sustaining the charmed simplicity of each piece.
Lifted from a soul-stirring version of Phil Ochs’s most celebrated love song, the title to Changes also reflects a major shift for the band: following the 2016 retirement of banjo player Ben Eldridge, it’s the first Seldom Scene album that doesn’t feature a founding member. “I suppose it’s a gutsy move to keep this going without a single original member left,” Connell admits. “But we’ve all been doing this for a quarter-century now, so if anybody can carry that mantle, it’s us.”
On Changes, The Seldom Scene more than proves itself up to task, gracing every song with breathtaking instrumental interplay and heavenly three-part harmonies. Co-produced by the band and Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin, the album also spotlights The Seldom Scene’s sheer ingenuity as song arrangers, with even the most starkly composed tracks taking on wondrously intricate textures and tones.
In another significant departure for the band, Irwin played a key role in choosing songs for Changes, lending a new sense of purpose to the selection process. “In the past, we’ve always just sat around a boom box or whatever happened to be available, then listened to what everybody’s brought in and made decisions based on how good the song felt,” Connell explains. As they assembled the album’s tracklist, the band gravitated toward songs with a certain time-defying quality to their storytelling. “One of the things that intrigues me most is the fact that such incredibly young people were writing songs that sounded like they’re from the soul of a much older person,” says Connell. “They had an ability to think up these very meaningful stories with such thoughtful lyrics, and I think that’s why these songs have turned out to be so timeless.”
Opening with a brightly tumbling, banjo-driven reimagining of “Everybody’s Talkin’”—the Fred Neil-penned lament made mega-hit by Harry Nilsson in 1969—Changes both upholds that timeless quality and introduces an entirely fresh sensibility into each song. And with Connell, Travers, and Reid trading off the lead vocal, the album finds all three singers turning in an undoubtedly full-hearted performance, thoroughly honoring the emotional power and poetically crafted message at the heart of every track. “These songs are so lyrically deep, you’ve gotta sing it right—you can’t fool around with the words,” Connell points out.
Throughout Changes, The Seldom Scene’s crystal-clear harmonies and palpable camaraderie carry the songs through countless moods, from the homesick yet hopeful anticipation of “Steel Rail Blues” (originally recorded by Gordon Lightfoot in 1966) to the lovestruck sorrow of “Darcy Farrow” (Steve Gillette, 1965) to the reflective intensity of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” (1963). On their brilliantly buoyant update of John Prine’s 1971 meditation “Good Time,” the band attains an especially striking alchemy, reshaping a heavy-hearted folk tune into something straight out of the Flatt & Scruggs repertoire. “You’d never think of putting a Flatt & Scruggs beat to a John Prine song with just finger-picked guitar and voice, but somehow it worked,” Connell recalls. “Everyone got these big smiles on their faces so we said, ‘All right, let’s go with that!’ Sometimes those magic moments just happen.”
Elsewhere on Changes, The Seldom Scene reveals its acute sensitivity to the character of the source material, such as on their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s gently devastating 1968 track “I’ll Be Here in the Morning.” “At first we recorded it as a straight-up bluegrass song, but then we realized we weren’t getting at its essence—we’d lost some of that moodiness,” says Connell. “Lou and I ended up re-cutting it with just guitar and voice, and it ended up sounding so painfully lonely.” Despite the later addition of Stewart’s beautifully lilting fiddle lines, that lonesome spirit endures for the final version, resulting in a rendition just as heartbreaking as the original.
Finally, on the album-closing “Sweet Baby James,” The Seldom Scene revisits a song previously recorded for their 1972 debut Act I (widely regarded as one of the most influential records in the history of progressive bluegrass). “That’s the only one of these songs that we’ve been doing live—people kept coming up to us at the merch table and asking if we had it on record, so it was a no-brainer,” says Connell. In breathing new life into James Taylor’s 1970 lullaby, the band made careful use of Reid’s longtime study of Taylor’s singular guitar style, giving way to a gracefully sculpted track still closely centered on the melancholy cowboy tale captured in the lyrics.
With Connell describing the Changes recording sessions as “rollicking fun,” The Seldom Scene is now looking forward to the next phase of the album’s lifespan: taking their newly recorded songs out on the road, in a live show that joyfully balances the band’s most recent work with plenty of fan favorites and audience requests. “When you’ve been around a long time, you know you’ve touched a lot of people, and that those people have a lot of memories tied to these songs,” notes Connell. And when it comes to sharing their latest material, Connell and his bandmates are happily continuing with the mission that’s long guided The Seldom Scene. “There’s a younger crowd coming into bluegrass all the time, and we love the idea of introducing them to songs they’ve maybe never heard before,” he says. “A good song will last forever, and we’ve always made sure to go with the songs that will way outlive us all