Ben Eldridge, a former mathematician who expanded the bluegrass genre with his inventive banjo playing, died on April 14 at age 85. (Photo courtesy of Bluegrass Today)

Erstwhile mathematician Eldridge fiddled with bluegrass formula, added to the scene

by | May 3, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, Fredericksburg

Ben Eldridge, a hall-of-fame bluegrass banjo player who called Fredericksburg his home for the latter part of his life, died of natural causes on April 14 at age 85. He was a member of the influential DC area band The Seldom Scene, which he played with for 44 years, until 2015.  

The Seldom Scene were part of the second generation of bluegrass music, which expanded the genre from its beginnings in the 1940s by such artists as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Eldridge took Scruggs’ influence and expanded it with his own inventive playing.  

A trained mathematician, Eldridge juggled a day job at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory while gigging first with Cliff Waldron & The New Shades of Grass. The strain of working both jobs led him to quit Waldron’s band, but the music never left his soul.  

Eldridge helped form The Seldom Scene soon after that in 1971. Eldridge recalled how that band started in a 2014 interview he did along with singer-guitarist John Starling. 

“Well, it was a great big accident,” Eldridge said at the time. “It really was. There had been a rumor going around this good singer who was a doctor back at Walter Reed, we were going to get together. I walked into Arlington Music one day in August of ’71 and John Duffey, it’s where he worked at the time. He was a luthier, but he was sitting behind the counter that time.” 

After a few intro jam sessions, the first Seldom Scene lineup was Eldridge, Starling, John Duffey on mandolin/vocals, Mike Auldridge on Dobro, and Tom Gray on bass. The band name came from a joke that they were all doing music as a side gig. 

“Charlie Waller had evidently gotten word of this rumor the summer before we actually started doing anything,” Eldridge said. “He just offhandedly said ‘Well, they’ve all got day jobs. They might as well call themselves the Seldom Seen.’ Somebody told Duffey that and it stuck with him.” 

After establishing regular nights at DC area clubs like The Red Fox and The Birchmere, The Seldom Scene recorded their first album in 1972. “Act One” was a mix of classic bluegrass standards and interpretations of contemporary folk rock songs like James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and Arlo Guthrie’s “City Of New Orleans”.  

That combination, along with their juxtaposition of loose presentation with precise and skilled vocal and instrumental skills was the band’s secret sauce that earned them a worldwide following. Their album “Live At The Cellar Door” is still considered one of the best live bluegrass albums of all time. Eldridge’s banjo breaks were a key to the band’s success.  

Ben Eldridge’s son Chris is a renowned acoustic guitarist in his own right. Chris is a member of “The Punch Brothers” with mandolin player Chris Thile and has also recorded a series of albums with jazz guitarist Julian Lage. In a 2017 interview, Chris Eldridge talked about growing up with a father in the bluegrass business. 

“I grew up around bluegrass festivals and going to The Birchmere and hearing ‘The Seldom Scene’ and hearing a lot of other bluegrass and hearing a lot of other music as well,” Chris Eldridge recalled.  

“I just got to be around a lot of live music, a lot of music being made by people right there in front of me. To see these people you actually know and to see that they are playing music and it sounds really awesome, it makes it seem as if playing music is as natural as breathing. That’s just something you do. I feel very lucky in that regard.” 

Although Ben Eldridge was a major name in bluegrass, he was often seen at local venues supporting bluegrass in Fredericksburg. He and his wife Barbara moved to downtown Fredericksburg in 1984, following his friend John Starling (who died in 2019). The two former bandmates lived around the corner from each other on Washington Avenue.  

The Eldridges later moved to a senior living community in Spotsylvania County. Ben will be missed by his many friends and fans.  

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