Dudley ConnellBy Dickson Mercer
For Bluegrass Now
Dudley Connell is reasonably sure it was August of 1980. He was missing too much work. Perhaps he had been playing music until 4 a.m. and could not wake up in time; maybe he needed to miss a Friday or a Monday to travel. So he quit his labor job with Montgomery County public schools – driving a truck, plowing snow, putting up fences, cutting down trees – and committed himself solely to the Johnson Mountain Boys. He lived in a trailer, alone, on a farm in Damascus, Md. Lucky for him, the landlord was a bluegrass fan, and willing to cut his tenant some slack when it came time to pay rent.
The Johnson Mountain Boys took to the road in an old Dodge van with no windows. Connell took over the booking. He called everywhere. He did whatever it took to get the band exposure, even if it meant a trip to Florida for $900. "It was an adventure," Connell said. "It was like we all ran away from home and joined the circus. Everything was new. None of us had traveled much and it was very exciting. We went over real good. We were writing a lot. We were doing our own material."
Rounder had signed the band in the late 1970s, and throughout the 1980s, the Johnson Mountain Boys continued to make records for the label while touring non-stop: two-hundred shows a year, four or five nights per week. Quite often the musicians changed into their matching western suits in the van and shaved their faces out of a cooler. They would play in Missouri one weekend night and put on a gospel show in Georgia the next. They would play at carnivals during the week, at festivals on the weekends, and rarely passed up a smoky bar. At the end of a good year, Connell remembers bringing home about $20,000. Where he came from -- Montgomery County, Md. -- a desk job easily paid twice as much.
"When we were doing a lot of this we were in our early 20s," Connell said, "but when we started getting married, started having kids, started buying homes and cars, our responsibilities changed, and there was a lot more pressure to be out there, probably too much. I guess we just burned each other out."
The band had come together and cut its teeth in small clubs and bars around D.C. This was a time when you could hear bluegrass every night of the week. Local tradition included the likes of Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, Don Reno, The Stoneman Family, The Country Gentlemen, and The Seldom Scene.
The majority of bluegrass audiences, meanwhile, at least from Connell's perspective, wanted to hear familiar material like "Fox on the Run" or "Bringing Mary Home" or "Rocky Top." The Johnson Mountain Boys, on the other hand, were only interested in Stanley or Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs. It was an insistence that cleared out a few rooms, but eventually fresh audiences returned that ate up the group's hardcore-or-nothing aesthetic.
"It was kind of an interesting phenomenon," Connell said, "and it was kind of cool because I think one of the things that lead to our early success was that there were not young guys doing what we do. There were the old guys, first generation: Bill Monroe was around, Jimmy Martin, and Ralph Stanley. So the bedrock was there, but there were not young kids playing real straight-ahead, hardcore bluegrass."
But these young kids eventually grew up. And in 1988, after a gig, late at night, or perhaps early in the morning, Connell and bassist Marshall Wilborn – both whom had already driven – tried to wake up mandolinist David McLaughlin for a turn at the wheel. McLaughlin said he could not do it: he was physically unable. "I don't want to do this anymore," he said.
Connell agreed: "Me neither," he said. "I'm done."
It is January 2, 2006. Dudley Connell is at work. An antique banjo rests near the door of his office at the National Council for the Traditional Arts. There's little to decorate the white walls besides a small photo of the Johnson Mountain Boys onstage in full regalia. You can hear the faint din of a guitar workshop lead by David Bromberg. His office has an open reel recorder, four-track recorder, DAT machine, and a digital converter. There are two computers. On one he manipulates and refines the resolution of old recordings; on the other he enters data into a spreadsheet he designed.
The NCTA's audio recordings date back to the 1930s. And in 2000, Connell developed a system to digitally archive the collection for the Library of Congress. Two years ago he hired his bandmate and banjo player, Tom Adams, to help with the task. Connell sends Adams digital files; Adams divides the files into tracks and re-samples them so they can be burned onto CDs. Connell, meanwhile, applies the final touches and makes MP3s before he delivers the digital files to the Library of Congress.
"So, that's what I do," he says. "Let me show you the archive."
Connell walks down the hallway. He opens a door to a lightly air-conditioned room, revealing boxes of rare Olla Belle Reed recordings stacked high among shelves of old reels, videos, and DATs. The NCTA collection includes everything from bluegrass, blues, and jazz, to Cajun music, Indian drum chants, and polka, almost all of which was recorded at NCTA-sponsored concerts, tours, and workshops. Connell estimates that, thus far, three-quarters of the material has been digitally converted, amounting to roughly 3,500 hours of music.
"One of the first reels I loaded up was John Prine," he says with a grin, "just after his first record came out and it's completely out the door. It's just him and a guitar. There was also Ralph Stanley with Roy Lee Centers and Curly Ray Cline, which was the first Ralph Stanley Band I ever saw. Those are treasures for me."
Connell describes his job as the "perfect day gig." He learned the techniques of the trade "on the fly," shortly after the Johnson Mountain Boys disbanded. Connell had decided to enroll in school full-time; one of his first courses was Career Development. "I had not had much of a formal education, so I thought, 'Let's see what life skills I can apply to a real world job'." One of Connell's first assignments, as it happens, was to interview someone he thought had a "cool job." He chose Tony Seeger, the new director of Smithsonian Folkways in Washington, D.C., the curator of the collection and director of the label.
"I thought, 'Wow, that's about the coolest job I've ever heard of'," Connell recalled. "I was interviewing him and about half-an-hour into the interview he started asking me about my background, what I was doing." At the time, Smithsonian Folkways kept its entire collection of 3,000 titles in print. "Well, if you are doing vinyl and you have to keep 200 or 300 copies pressed and you only sell one or two per year," he explained, "the math does not work out very well, and they did not know what they were going to do with it." Connell, however -- who had a few ideas about making DATs of reel-to-reels and dubbing cassettes -- wound up with a job. "I ended up going to all these various studios and asking them how to do it," he said. "That's how I learned." By the time, however, that NCTA director Joe Wilson asked Connell to work for him in the late 1990s, all the formats were digital.
This, by the way, is the same Dudley Connell who has been a vital figure in two legendary Washington, D.C. bluegrass bands. He has emerged from the Johnson Mountain Boys, the quintessential traditional bluegrass outfit of the 1980s, to guide The Seldom Scene, a progressive group founded in 1971, into a new millennium. Two years ago he co-founded Seneca Rocks!. Connell recently celebrated 10 years as The Scene's lead guitarist and singer. No one, not even John Starling, has held the slot longer.
Connell grew up in Rockville, Md., not far from D.C., in a "subsidized apartment complex." His father played banjo, his mother was a mountain-style ballad singer. At home it was not uncommon to hear the Stanley Brothers or Reno and Smiley.
"We were living in these apartments that were not air-conditioned and it was kind of one of the nice things about it," he said. "In the summertime everyone would go outside and set up lawn chairs, and it was a great community feel. My dad would bring out his banjo and someone else would bring out a guitar."
But as the Civil Rights Movement took its course, the area changed, Connell said, and actually exploded into riots when Martin Luther King was assassinated, shortly after his family had moved to nearby Gaithersburg.
"One black family would move in, two white families would move out, so in the course of a year-and-a-half to two years it went from 100 percent white to 90 percent black, which, for me, became another important part of my musical education," Connell said. "Instead of hearing Buck Owens and Hank Williams coming out of open apartment windows, I was hearing James Brown and Otis Redding … I got to be friends with this family that moved in; they were twice my age but they just took me under their wing and introduced me to 45s of all these great R&B bands. I just became a huge fan of early soul, of Booker and the MGs, and all these things I had never heard."
While bluegrass had been part of Connell's childhood, initially he preferred the grooves of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. He also developed a taste for popular singer/songwriters like John Prine and Bob Dylan, as well as the roots-inspired rock of Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young.
That all changed, however, in 1974, at a bluegrass festival at Ralph Stanley's Old Home Place in McClure, Va. Connell was 18. He and a group of friends took a scenic route through the mountains which extended the drive to almost 9 hours. "Finally, we found the place," Connell said, "and there's this string of lights hung up like you would see at a fairgrounds, and some old guy with a cob pipe is taking tickets. We pulled up onto this dirt road that lead into a parking area and I heard Ralph Stanley singing 'Man of Constant Sorrow' way down at the bottom of this deep hollow, this natural amphitheater. And to hear that voice coming off those mountains. I mean that, to me, was a near religious experience."
Connell jumped out of the car and ran down the hill. "That was it," he said. "After that I remember laying out a blanket at the foot of the stage and I just never left. I didn't eat. I didn't do anything. I just stayed there." This is when Connell decided to be a musician -- to play nothing less than what he believed was the most hardcore and pure bluegrass.
"Carter-Stanley was the real thing early on that made me want to sing bluegrass," he said. "Stanley's voice has so much passion and soul … Coming from a background of blues and soul music, it's not technical proficiency that lights me up, it's something that can touch me emotionally, and he sure did that."
At the end of a day of work for Montgomery County Public Schools, Connell would meet up with his friend, Ron Welch, after dinner. They would practice from 7 to 10 p.m. Connell was actually playing banjo at the time. From 10 p.m. to midnight, he and Welch would drive around with quarts of beer and listen to Gary Henderson's weekday bluegrass program on WAMU. Connell sold his entire rock collection; he spent the bulk of his paycheck at the Music Box in Langley Park on traditional bluegrass records.
"I became almost crazed about wanting to play just all the time," Connell said. "I was really into it, and finally Ron was like, 'enough'. He had a full-time job and he quit playing music." Unsure what to do next, Connell, like he did every Wednesday, went to see the husband and wife bluegrass duo, Bennie and Vallie Cain, at Shakeys Pizza. "I went in there right after Ron quit, told them about my plight, and I remember Benny said to me, 'You are an OK banjo player but your strength is really your singing. What you need to do is give up playing banjo and play guitar so you can concentrate on singing. Get people to play with you."
Connell took her advice. He does not recall how the band came together, only that it did, and that the pieces of the Johnson Mountain Boys fell in order rather quickly: David McLaughlin on mandolin; Frannie Davidson then Richard Underwood then Tom Adams on banjo; Eddie Stubbs on fiddle; Gary Reid then Mark Prendall then Larry Robbins then Marshall Wilborn on bass.
Dudley Connell heard a voice in the back of the room. A female voice. This was 9 years ago. Connell was teaching a rhythm guitar workshop in the D.C. area to 40 students.
"It caught my ear and I went up and introduced myself," Connell explained. "I said, 'Wow, that's really nice singing. Who are you?' Because I didn't know who she was, and I had been around the D.C. music scene for many years."
Her name was Sally Love, and she also worked at the Smithsonian, as an exhibit developer at the National Museum of Natural History. They exchanged emails and began to correspond once or twice a year.
When she attended the workshop, Love had just picked up guitar. In similar fashion to Connell, she began on mandolin but switched to guitar when she realized her true talent lay within her voice.
The daughter of an Air Force Colonel, Love attended high school in Germany. Back then she was a flute player. She wound up with a spot in a traveling band that was "looking for something to sound a bit different."
"It took me a while to learn how to sing lead," she said. "Harmony came as easy as falling off a log. We would spend hours playing. We really couldn't drive. There was no television. There really was not a whole lot to do, so I found a group of people that just liked to sit around and play music and sing. That was our entertainment."
Following a long hiatus from music, Love wound up in D.C. and immersed herself in the local scene. She won a Washington Area Music Association Award in 2003 for "Best Female Vocalist" and has recorded a CD with Gary Ferguson. Before that, she even found a gig for her and Connell at the Smithsonian's annual picnic for employees.
"He would come over and we would work on stuff and it was really nice," she said. "It was kind of hesitant at first, because we were very different styles. But he's the best blender. He can blend with anybody." Connell, sitting across from her, did his best to deflect her praise.
"With Sally it was a very different experience," he said. When Connell sang with Don Rigsby, for instance, it worked instantaneously because the two "came from the same place." Same goes for Hazel Dickens: he could easily relate to her high-powered, Appalachian tone. But "Sally has this beautiful, pure, lilting kind of voice," he explained, "and it took me a while because I did not know how to handle it at first. I didn't know what my role was going to be. Do I sing my same old hard-ass way or do I soften up and change the way I phrase? But what ended up happening was that we met half-way."
As changes transpired in their personal lives, Connell and Love began to sing more frequently. They now live together in Gaithersburg. Connell's ex-wife lives nearby, which allows them to spend time with Connell's 15-year-old son, Charlie. Connell's first child, Emily, is 20. Love, who is also divorced, has no children.
On a typical weekday morning Connell takes Charlie to school by 7:20. If all goes according to plan, he and Love then leave their apartment with time to catch the commuter lane on I-270. Love will drop off Connell at work, continue south on Georgia Avenue, and eventually turn right; finally she will snake down Constitution Avenue to her job in D.C.
"We find that block of time in the morning to be really kind of a nice time to exchange what's going on and how we feel," Connell said. "It's just us, and we like it. Even the traffic is not so tough because it gives us a chance to spend some uninterrupted time together."
The show begins with a rather brief introduction. "Alright." Connell says. "Let's play some bluegrass." With that, The Seldom Scene open a Birchmere show in Alexandria, Va. on November 24, 2006, with the tender " Easy Ride From Good Times To The Blues."
Usually The Scene begins with two or three songs in mind. From there the band will feel its way through the night, often with help from the audience. For this show, The Scene side more with the trademark harmony of "Wait A Minute" and "Heart and Soul," not the acrobatics of "I Know You Rider."
Connell wears jeans with an unbuttoned shirt and black t-shirt. He has glasses and a gray mustache. Curly brown hair has faded to grey. It takes little more than one song for beads of sweat to form on his brow and soak his shirt. His voice booms; it blends even better. Connell plays naturally, with confidence, yet he also exudes a youthful vigor: he comes across at times like a young musician out to prove his chops. He plays with his right leg slightly flexed; the left holds the beat. It's not that he tries to hog the spotlight. The spotlight simply finds him -- in spite of Lou Reid's sheer power, Fred Travers' artful touch, and the natural respect one pays to Ben Eldridge.
Connell's quips in between songs involve Wal-Mart's two-dollar bottle of wine and the McDonalds McRib Sandwich. But the joke that twists up Barry Manilow and the hearing impaired gets the loudest response. It happens to be a mostly negative one; for a second or two, Connell laughs and blushes a bit, musicians look for a hole. One could not help but think of John Duffey, a 25-year member of The Scene, the man who took notes to Johnny Carson, a quintessential figure in bluegrass. Connell, Travers, and bassist Ronnie Simpkins joined the band just about a year before he died on Dec. 10, 1996.
Many bluegrass fans, meanwhile, unaware that Connell's musical tastes and sensibilities had changed, were shocked to find out he had joined the band. For Connell, however, it was actually the dream job, musically and emotionally and professionally, particularly in that the bandmembers remain committed to day jobs.
"It was exciting playing with someone like John," Connell said, "because he was bigger than life. He was outrageous, musically and personally. I loved him like a father; I really did. And he loved us. In my professional life, that year with John was probably the highlight … It does come up in conversations sometimes late at night with The Scene. What it would have been like with John and I, now that I feel completely comfortable in my role and what I do now?"
Hard to believe, but in 1988, Connell actually believed he was done with music. Country Gentleman co-founder, Charlie Waller, on the other hand, believed otherwise. "I heard you are leaving bluegrass," he said to Connell after a show in Arcadia, Md. "You'll be back."
Connell insisted he would not be. Waller responded, "You are one of those people: it's in your blood. You can't leave it behind."
After a year away from music, Connell received a call from Hazel Dickens to fill in. All it took was one job. Right away, he knew Waller was right.
"I don't know if it's because I have some vanity," he says, "or some kind of ego that needs to be massaged; if I don't play for a while I get kind of depressed. It's such a big part of my life, and this sounds like a horrible thing, but when I walk into the NCTA and start dubbing tapes, nobody applauds."
He stops to gather his thoughts. "There is some kind of magic that happens between an audience and a performer, especially when there is no longer a distinction between the two, when everybody is on the same page. Man, there is just nothing better than that."