Meet six Bethesda-area musicians who have had success without stardom-and who like it that way.
John Jennings of Potomac is a stalwart on the local music scene and a frequent name on liner notes for guitar, vocals and songwriting. He gets airplay on indie radio and helped launch Mary Chapin Carpenter’s career in the 1980s.
But Jennings isn’t well known outside of music circles. He and many other Bethesda-area musicians have the talent to hit it big, but they have chosen to avoid the lifestyle that goes with being a star.
Here are the stories of six talented local musicians.
John Jennings, 55, produced Carpenter’s first CD, Hometown Girl, and went on to produce and record 11 top-10 singles and two Grammy-award-winning albums with her. He recently produced and played on Carpenter’s album Twelve Songs of Christmas. A singer-songwriter in his own right, he’s also recorded five independent albums; his most recent is More Noise From Nowhere, which appeared in January.
Jennings is as much a producer as he is a musician. In addition to Carpenter—whom he dated briefly some 20 years ago—he has produced for John Gorka, BeauSoleil, John McCutcheon, Robin and Linda Williams, Janis Ian, Catie Curtis, Jen Cass and Bill Morrissey; he’s played guitar and sung on recordings by Kathy Mattea, Iris DeMent, George Jones and the Indigo Girls. Jennings was nominated for a Grammy as producer for Record of the Year in 1994 for Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and has won WAMMY awards from the Washington Area Music Association for producer of the year, best folk/bluegrass instrumentalist, best folk/bluegrass male vocalist, best contemporary folk/Irish instrumentalist, best contemporary folk/Irish male vocalist and video of the year.
So what’s his musical style? When pressed, Jennings describes his work as “eclectic. Pretty rocking to pretty minimalist to pretty ’30s.” He’s been compared to Lyle Lovett—who calls him “the consummate artist”—and Richard Thompson. Listen for love songs, political ditties—I really wanna talk to you, ’cause the last time I looked it was my world too/Before you ruin it for me, I think I need to tell you a thing or three—catchy tunes, bluesy guitar and danceable beats.
Although he says fame is really not the point—“My solo career is not burning a hole in my psyche”—Jennings does enjoy telling a story from several years ago, when he was traveling in London and someone recognized him on the street. “I’m a little guy from Luray, Virginia,” he marvels. “I produce records that have sold millions, I’ve been nominated for a Grammy and I’ve been recognized in a foreign city.”
It’s a long way from his first band, when he would borrow a guitar to play “Secret Agent Man” and “The Sounds of Silence.” That was in sixth grade, when he was living in Arlington, Va. Later, as a teenager, he played all over the D.C. area, including in Bethesda. Like so many young musicians, he struggled financially, sleeping on friends’ couches for weeks at a time; then, he found salvation in jingles, which he recorded for four or five years. “Being a musician is the only job I’ve had since 1979,” he says.
How did he make it?
“I’m stubborn, and I’m good.” Jennings says he’s able to “find a way with a song, whether it’s mine or someone else’s.” He’s also lucky, he admits. He was fortunate to meet Carpenter in 1982 through Bill Danoff (of the Starland Vocal Band). “We hit it off and started making beautiful music together,” he jokes.
Last summer, Jennings, once a Strathmore artist in residence, joined many of his friends on the local music scene at a Joni Mitchell tribute organized at Strathmore. He sang Mitchell’s “For Free,” about a musician playing on a street corner—a perfect contribution, he says, from a working musician such as himself.
Chances are, if you know what a dobro is, you know Mike Auldridge. If you don’t, you might have heard of him from his days with the band the Seldom Scene—or you might have heard his guitar on recordings of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
Auldridge, a youthful-looking 70, is a master of what is now known as a resophonic guitar (Gibson guitars copyrighted the name “dobro”). The instrument looks like a standard guitar with a silver-colored plate under the strings and a hidden cone that amplifies sound—a pre-electrified trick to boost the volume on bluegrass music. A close cousin to the pedal steel guitar, the resophonic guitar is played by sliding a bar up and down the strings while picking with the other hand.
Auldridge learned to play guitar and banjo as a teenager living in Kensington—a place he considered a “real country town” when he moved there from the District at age 7. It was in Kensington that he discovered the country and bluegrass music of the legendary Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. “When I first heard it, it just touched my heart,” he says. His uncle, Ellsworth Cousins, was the family hero because he played dobro with Jimmie Rodgers, the first superstar of country music. Auldridge favored the dobro over other instruments. He keeps a framed 1928 photo of his uncle on his studio wall and uses another as his computer screen saver.
Too practical to consider music as a career, Auldridge studied commercial art at the University of Maryland. After graduation, he worked at Souder and Associates, a commercial art firm in Bethesda, once located in the basement of the old Hiser Theater. He later worked at the Washington Star until the newspaper stopped publishing in 1981.
But Auldridge never stopped playing, creating a second career with the Seldom Scene—so-named because its members all had day jobs and so were “seldom seen” on the local music circuit. Auldridge has described those early days as more like a weekly card game than a commercial endeavor. Recalling some of the teasing that went on, even during performances, he says, “It’s been like kids in a tree house. I think this is one of the reasons guys become musicians. You never have to grow up.”
From 1971 to 1976, the Seldom Scene played every Thursday at the Red Fox Inn on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, until the Birchmere in Alexandria lured the band members away by tripling their pay.
When Auldridge lost his job at the Star, he decided to see if he could make a living with a guitar. With a wife and two small children, it was “scary,” he says, but he’d put aside some money. “When I realized after about six months that I hadn’t dipped into my savings,” he says he thought, “ ‘I’ll be damned, I’m a musician.’ I was afraid to even hope for that.”
Auldridge, who has lived in Silver Spring for 35 years, now plays with four or five bands, records for top country and bluegrass musicians and travels around the country promoting the resophonic guitar designed for him. “I’ve done recordings for 30 years, I have nine or 10 solo projects out and I’ve been on 250 albums of other people. That’s a real nice legacy,” he says. “But the guitar—this is huge to me.” He went through four or five prototypes with Beard Guitars before the instrument was exactly to his liking, and now he calls it “the best guitar in the world.”
Even though Auldridge plays down the Grammy award for a CD that he did with nine other top dobro players, he does recognize his own artistry: “It thrills me to hear the music that can come out of my hands,” he says. But, onstage, he prefers his role as sideman. “I love it if I get applause, but that’s not why I do it,” he says. “I don’t play it for the reward. I play it because I cannot not play it.”
For a Frenchman playing Gaelic music in an American bar, Philippe Varlet is as self-assured as any Irishman and for good reason. His friend and fellow musician Tina Eck of Cabin John once called him a “scary fiddle god” because his playing is so precise, and Rob Greenway of Takoma Park, who played with Varlet in the Blackthorn Ceili Band, refers to him as “a mighty force.” Varlet is on call for events at the Irish Embassy and has played for the White House, National Geographic and the Smithsonian. He’s done many festivals and private events and can be heard twice a week at Ri Ra Irish Pub in Bethesda.