Jean Cornett didn't play favorites when booking bands during the early years of the Festival of the Bluegrass. Deferring to the tastes of the patrons who attended the event every June, she invited acts she knew would be crowd-pleasers. There was, however, one exception.
"As long as the bands entertained my customers, I liked them," she said. "But if they mistreated my customers or didn't listen to them, I didn't particularly need them back. So we booked the bands the customers wanted to hear. But the Seldom Scene is one of my favorites. I have to admit I showed favoritism there.
"But they are also a favorite of the crowd. So I've got plenty of people backing me up on that."
Through its 40-year history, no touring act has been more closely associated with the Festival of the Bluegrass than the Seldom Scene. Torchbearers of a new, more progressive string-music generation at the dawn of the '70s, the group was well-versed in the music's tradition (co-founding mandolinist and tenor singer John Duffey, largely viewed as the leader, joined after an extended stay with the Country Gentlemen). But there was also a level of musicianship (especially within the wildfire soloing of dobro great Mike Auldridge) that regularly stretched the stylistic boundaries of what had been considered bluegrass at the time. While there were the requisite gospel and country references within the Seldom Scene's repertoire, their songs often came from artists in rock and progressive folk circles.
One of its most popular performance tunes remains Wait a Minute, written by the veteran West Coast folk and country stylist Herb Pedersen.
"It's something to break into a sentimental ballad like Wait a Minute and watch guys in the front rows just burst into tears," said Dudley Connell, who has served as guitarist and principal vocalist for the Seldom Scene for nearly 17 years. "I'm talking about guys who look like they just hopped off of a Harley. And I mean nothing but respect by that. It's a beautiful thing."
Connell was familiar with the Festival of the Bluegrass long before he joined the Seldom Scene. Throughout his '80s tenure with the Johnson Mountain Boys, he continually tried to get his band a booking. Initially, Jean Cornett wasn't biting.
"This goes back probably to 1983 or '84," Connell said. "In the early days of the Johnson Mountain Boys, I was booking the band and that was way up on my list of must-play festivals. I worked with Jean for a couple of years before she would book us. Then it seemed we worked it every year. But it was always one of those festivals that you just had to play if you were a professional bluegrass musician."
Connell's history with the festival was largely defined by his first two appearances there with the Seldom Scene. The first came in 1996 as part of a massive personnel turnover that included Auldridge's exit. That was when the singer realized what a commanding following Duffey maintained with audiences, especially in Kentucky.
"The first year that I went to Lexington with John, we were setting up mikes and preparing to do our show. He was backstage having a chat with one of the musicians who had just finished. As soon as John walked onstage and came into view of the audience, the whole place stood up and started applauding. And I thought, 'Wow, what a tip of the hat.' He had done this so long and had such a history with the Festival of the Bluegrass."
Duffey died unexpectedly of a heart attack that fall. That put the Seldom Scene at a professional crossroads as it came to the festival in 1997.
"After Duffey passed, I called Jean saying, 'You know, I'm not going to hold you to this contract. If you don't want us to have the band down there without John' — and this was when we had just replaced him — 'then we understand. No hard feelings.' And she said something to the effect of, 'You know, we're all family here. We're going to all miss John.' But she insisted that we bring the band down again. So there has never been a break in our schedule with them. The Festival of the Bluegrass has always been a standing date for us. I really respected her for that. I've always held her in high regard, but that really took it over the top."
There has not been a lineup change in the band since then, with mandolinist/guitarist Lou Reid (who had also been a member during the late '70s and early '80s), dobroist Fred Travers, banjoist Ben Eldridge (the only remaining original member) and bassist Ronnie Simpkins completing today's Seldom Scene.
Ahead for the band will be the release of a new recording for the Smithsonian Folkways label this fall that features new recordings of vintage Seldom Scene songs with return cameos by founding members John Starling and Tom Gray. (Auldridge died last year before recording on the project began.)
Beyond that, the future holds one certainty: As long as there is a Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington, there will be a Seldom Scene to perform at it.
"There are very few events that have quite the history and, frankly, the energy, as the Festival of the Bluegrass," Connell said. "For us, it's one of the highlights of the summer. It's a real honor to share so much history with it."
IF YOU GO
40th Annual Festival of the Bluegrass
When: June 6-9
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pkwy.
Tickets: $10-$45 single-day tickets, $95-$115 weekend passes. Available at (859) 253-0806 or Festivalofthebluegrass.com.
June 6: 7:40 p.m., Grass Stains. 8:30, Coal Town Dixie. 10, Lonesome River Band.
June 7: 1 p.m., Moron Brothers. 1:50 and 6, Bluegrass Collective. 2:40 and 9:20, Dale Ann Bradley. 3:30 and 10:50, IIIrd Tyme Out. 4:20 and 10, 23 String Band. 5:10, Laurel River Line. 7:40, Dailey and Vincent.
June 8: 1 p.m., Kentucky Blue. 1:50 and 7:40, Blue Highway. 2:40 and 8:30, The Boxcars. 3:30 and 9:20, Masters of Bluegrass featuring Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Osborne. 4:20 and 10, Town Mountain. 5:10 and 10:50, Seldom Scene. 6, Dry Branch Fire Squad.
June 9: 10, Kentucky Blue. 10:40, Dry Branch Fire Squad.