John Duffey, whose “high lonesome tenor” and sparkling mandolin playing helped propel the Seldom Scene bluegrass group to worldwide stardom, died Dec. 10 in Arlington, Va., according to a member of the group. He was 62.
Duffey died without regaining consciousness after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home, said Dudley Connell, lead singer with the group.
Connell described Duffey as “one of the half-dozen most important players ever in this industry. He helped redefine how people looked at bluegrass, made it acceptable to the urban masses by his choice of material and style of performance.”
A native of Washington, Duffey formed the Seldom Scene in 1971 after about a decade of playing with Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen, another Washington-based bluegrass group that gained famed in the 1960s.
Duffey, a music instrument repairman who always complained about the travel that seemed an inherent part of the music business, put together the Seldom Scene with four other Washington musicians who had demanding day jobs – physician John Starling, mathematician Ben Eldridge, graphic artist Mike Auldridge and National Geographic’s Tom Gray.
The group planned to play occasionally, which was why they chose the name Seldom Scene. But a regular Thursday-night gig with standing-room-only crowds at a Bethesda, Md., club led to demands for recording and road appearances, then to weekly appearances at an Alexandria, Va., club, the Birchmere, where they played for 22 years.
Other members of the group said it was Duffey’s quirky, commanding stage presence that was the secret to the group’s success.
Over a quarter-century, the group eventually played in most of the 50 states and many foreign countries, and recorded dozens of recordings, tapes and compact discs. The most recent was “Dream Scene,” released this fall.
Duffey, along with Waller and other original Country Gentlemen, was inducted into the Intl. Bluegrass Music Assn.’s Hall of Fame in September.