Belle Starr – A lighter shade of twang
If Belle Starr’s sound were analogous to their horse-thieving, gun-toting, outlaw-loving namesake, you’d might expect one of those Marshall-stacked, power-chord-wielding acts that occupy the darker edges of alternative country. But, to the benefit of better hearing and twangy hooks, that’s not the case.
Belle Starr’s new release, Nobody You’d Know, walks a free-flowing yet playful gait through 12 original songs and one cover, rocking a bit harder than their first CD (1996’s Far As The Wind Blows). The record gathers sustenance from country-pop wellsprings such as the Everlys and Sweetheart-era Byrds, while also harkening to the grounded indie-rock of the Vulgar Boatmen.
Primary songsmith and co-founder Kip Loui found his way toward the band’s easy fusion of country and pop styles from the rock side. “Like most city kids, I didn’t grow up listening to country music,” he says. “It was probably ’60s bands like Buffalo Springfield, Creedence and the country Byrds that got me into twangy sounds and country rhythms.”
While those acts comprise the base for the band’s instrumental approach, it’s the crystalline harmonies of Loui and co-founder Lynne Reif that most demand the listener’s attention. Both Loui and Reif cite classic Top 40 radio as inspiration, but they also credit the years they spent singing in church and school chorus groups. That’s maybe not the trendiest confession for pop-based players to make, but it’s not necessarily out-of-place, given the early training of the band’s more roots-based heroes.
Backed by experienced St. Louis players Mike Schrand (lead guitar), Jerry Lada (bass) and Bill Yaeger (drums), Belle Starr fuses their vocal prowess with solid instrumental work. In their live shows, they cover both Gillian Welch and the Zombies with ease.
Generally, Loui writes the songs and Reif sings lead. On the new record, though, Reif contributes three songs of equal strength to Loui’s, betraying rock and folk influences. Reif credits artists such as “Shawn Colvin and Rickie Lee Jones for first inspiring me to write, and Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch for the songs I wrote for Nobody You’d Know.”
Belle Starr, three times voted best country band in St. Louis’ annual music poll (a title owing largely to the lack of a more descriptive category), hasn’t been the only vehicle for Loui. He also is one of the founders of St. Louis’ annual Twangfest roots-rock gathering, and chips in as a writer and singer for the more rockabilly and trad-country Rockhouse Ramblers.
Like their nefarious namesake, Belle Starr rides a wide trail, nicking a bit here and a bit there in the interests of a more emancipated journey. The outlaw Belle met a sudden and violent end; the band shows no such inclination.