Starlings, TN – Out on a limb
UFOs spotted over Music City, USA? Just maybe…alien meddling is a pretty plausible explanation for Starlings, TN and its otherworldly hybridization of Celtic-flavored bluegrass, old-time string music and they-are-out-there psychedelia.
On its debut disc The Leaper’s Fork (Chicken Ranch Records), the Nashville trio takes traditional instrumentation — dulcimer, mandolin, ukulele, bouzouki, accordion, acoustic guitar — then applies a decidedly untraditional touch, such as amplifying and bowing a dulcimer and draping arrangements with droning echo and twin-amp stereo effects, to wind up with something that sounds, well, downright alien.
The band was founded a couple of years ago by recovering punk rockers Steve Stubblefield (Methadone Actors) and Tim Bryan (Habitual Sex Offenders), both of whom had grown weary of rock and its attendant headaches. (Jose Lovato and T.J. Larkin would come into the Starlings fold later, with Lovato leaving not long after The Leaper’s Fork was completed.)
Bryan cites a summer of “painting houses and listening to Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and ‘World Cafe’ at noon” as the start of his shifting tastes. Stubblefield, who had sung gospel music as a kid in his Baptist minister grandfather’s church, found himself working at one point as a fry cook and buying “all the Lomax Collection stuff I could get my hands on.”
The final key to the pair’s conversion came when Stubblefield became friends with internationally renowned dulcimer player David Schnaufer (who has played on records by Johnny Cash, the Judds, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., and many others). Buying a dulcimer and taking lessons from Schnaufer, Stubblefield was hooked.
“We would sit there for hours and play,” he recalls, “and then the first time I ever heard Schnaufer drag a bow across the dulcimer, it blew my mind. I thought, ‘That’s the sound I’ve been lookin’ for’ and mentioned to Tim it would be really cool if he learned to play as well and become the ‘bow man.'”
“Steve and Dave scheduled me to take lessons [with Schnaufer], and the Starlings were off,” says Bryan. “Early on, we drew comparisons to ‘the Velvet Underground gone country,’ but as the band has evolved, the music has kind of taken on a life of its own.”
Their repertoire includes originals such as “That Girl Of Mine”, a good-timey front-porch singalong in the vein of Ronnie Lane’s “Ooh La La”, and “At-Uh-Boy”, wistful country-grass straight outta Steve Earle territory; radically rearranged traditional numbers such as “Red Rocking Chair” (mouth-harp/mandolin-laced space rock) and “Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus” (Daniel Lanois and Johnny Dowd go on a pickin’ ‘n’ grinnin’ gospel bender); and even a twisted rendition of the Schnaufer/Herb McCullough chestnut “Sarah”, previously recorded by Austin singer Toni Price.
One reviewer tagged the Starlings a “genetically enhanced string band.” The origin of the DNA is anybody’s guess; Stubblefield, the band’s chief songwriter, is quick to point out that he’s as influenced by Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo, Spiritualized and the Flaming Lips as he is by the Lomax records, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and the Skillet Lickers.
Plus, per group protocol, the rule is to keep stirring the gene pool. Schnaufer lends his estimable talents to a couple of the album’s songs, and while for economic reasons the band tours as a trio, if you catch the guys on their home turf, you’re likely to spot a decidedly expanded ensemble surrounding the Stubblefield-Bryan-Larkin core. “Most of the guys we pick with all have regular stuff they do,” Stubblefield says, “but it’s easy to invite a bunch over, turn on the grill, sit and pick until the sun comes up.”
With roughly two-thirds of a second album, tentatively due by October on Chicken Ranch, in the can, Starlings, TN is on the move. Its star is clearly on the rise as well, judging by the rapidly accumulating press kudos; not even payola can buy choice quotes such as, “Skip Spence and the Soggy Bottom Boys hitting a bong the size of a Hoover vacuum cleaner and then wrapping their impaired senses around the weirdest, saddest songs Paul Westerberg never showed anyone” (from the Nashville Scene).
Says Bryan, “I think the attraction to bluegrass is that it’s just so much damn fun to play, and the songs are real. It’s edgy, raw and powerful. And if you’re getting into bluegrass as a ‘trend,’ remember that the traditionalists know you’re full of crap, and it’ll still be crap even if you go platinum.”
“And we aren’t really a bluegrass band,” adds Stubblefield. “I think we have more in common with the early string bands of the ’20s and the brother duos of the ’30s, but obviously we have been influenced by a lot of different types of music.”