Starlings, TN
Gig Seeker Pro

Starlings, TN

Austin, Texas, United States | INDIE

Austin, Texas, United States | INDIE
Band Americana Bluegrass

Calendar

This band hasn't logged any future gigs

This band hasn't logged any past gigs

This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos

Music

Press


Meredith Ochs reviews the odd country sounds of Starlings, TN. The band mix odd electronic atmospheres with dulcimers, slide guitars and songs of love lost. This group is doing what many bands seem to love to do, make music in their home with computers and friends, shying away from high priced and high-pressure studios. The CD by Starlings, TN is called Between Hell and Baton Rouge. - NPR


Steven Stubblefield was chugging away on a new Starlings, TN record when he was forced into an unexpected 5-year hiatus courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. Having lost the inchoate album, Stubblefield spent the next three years helping others recover from the storm, first in Biloxi, then in his hometown of Hattiesburg. He also found the time to learn dulcimer from master David Schnaufer, who over the years lent his talents to the records of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Hank Jr.

How Dark It Is Before The Dawn is the title track from the new Starlings, TN record, 5+ years in the making. Longtime fans of Stubblefield are certain to note this is a decidedly more somber affair than previous outings. Of course, that’s only to be expected given what the man has seen and experienced, but I think the song perfectly captures one of those oh-so-elusive universal truths: This too shall pass.

Furthermore, this song should prevent us from ever again having to hear Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain set to Katrina footage. - My Old Kentucky Blog


I love depressing music, but nothing prepared me for this.

“How Dark It Is Before The Dawn” by Starlings, TN is easily the most crushingly sad album I’ve heard this year. It’s also on the shortlist for “Most Depressing Album I’ve Ever Heard,” right up there with every one of Elliott Smith’s records and “And Now That I’m In Your Shadow” by Damien Jurado.

Starlings, TN’s folk, Americana and alt-country mix skews toward the stark and empty school of arrangement, but that’s not what makes this a mega-downer. Plenty of guys are optimistic with nothin’ but a guitar. What makes this so devastating is the brutal, effective lyrics and overall sense of doom that permeates the words and music. Even with the scant glimpses of optimism throughout (see the title), this is almost unbearably sorrowful.

For example, I’ve heard the first track 13 times, and the play count decreases down to the last track, which I’ve heard four times. I’ve only been able to make it through this album four times out of 13. Ouch. And that’s not because the music is bad; it’s very good. It’s just … okay, I’m beating a dead horse. —Stephen Carradini - Oklahoma Gazette


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 Café’ 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.” - No Depression


String-band music has transformative power.

Though they began as punk rockers, Starlings TN found artistic fulfillment by tapping into the true world-on-a-string. Like the Gourds, Starlings TN emerged from Louisiana’s rich sonic gumbo with acoustic guitars. But where the Gourds found a setting for their string-band fantasies in Doug Sahm’s Texas roadhouse, Starlings TN touched down atop David Schnaufer’s Tennessee mountain dulcimer collection.

Dulcimers — bowed or plucked, acoustic or electric — shape the soundscape of Between Hell And Baton Rouge. On their second album, Steve Stubblefield and Tim Bryan prove as adept at songcraft as they are at chilling atmospherics. Stubblefield’s originals prove as varied as they are addictive, from the opening “Tramps Rouge” (which sets the memory of an alcohol haunted journey in spirited motion), to the full-tilt razor dance of “Corbitt Up The Mountain”, to the desperate poignancy of “The Cumberland”.

The traditional songs fit in seamlessly. At first, “Wayfaring Stranger” almost seems beyond Stubblefield’s vocal range. But singing a traditional ballad is not a sprint. This version builds in power and nuance as its story unfolds naturally, from the heart.

Throughout, the vocals, and Bryan’s haunting bowed embellishments, display a mastery beyond mere craft. Even the cleverly dubbed “Villager Tavernacle Choir” brings ramshackle beauty to the incantatory “Going back to Louisiana,” which concludes the album’s harrowing trip. Along string-band music’s journey “back to the future”, Starlings TN make ideal tour guides. - No Depression


Discography

Heartache in 4/4 Time - March 2012

Bastrop (These Dark Times)/Can't Do Nothin' (single) - 2011
How Dark It Is Before the Dawn - 2010
The Christmas EP - 2010
Under the Influence - 2009
This Is Your Afterlife - 2005
Between Hell and Baton Rouge - 2004
The Leapers Form - 2002

Photos

Bio

About Starlings, TN by John Nova Lomax

Talk about a tumultuous decade. Since 2001, Steven Stubblefield of Starlings, TN has seen it all: epic natural disasters, personal demons, nervous breakdowns, the death of a mentor and friend, the severing of a great musical partnership, moves from Nashville to Mississippi to Texas, and, at last, with the release of Heartache in 4/4 Time, the completion of a rebirth and a reconnection with his past.

This record finds Stubblefield, a Baptist preacher’s son from Shreveport and a veteran of the vaunted 1990s North Louisiana punk/indie scene, coming in to his own as a singer and songwriter, finally settling comfortably into his own skin, and reuniting not only with fellow Starlings, TN, prodigal O.G. Tim Bryan, but also fellow guitarist of The Roadside Monuments, Bryan Robison, whom he played with more than twenty years ago.

While those seeking the eerie Appalachian atmospherics of some of the earlier Starlings, TN records won’t find them here, they will hear something very much a piece of the band’s sound. The addition and influence of Robison on electric guitar has a lot to do with how it has changed. While Starlings, TN had used electric instruments on previous recordings; none had ever featured electric guitar. In other words, it might not be the exact same mountain sound the Starlings once purveyed, but the marriage of American roots music and organic, acoustic-based mood remains. Whereas they once offered up something they called “19th Century techno”, today’s sound might be more accurately described as “honky-techno.”

For the first time since his punk days in bands like the Methadone Actors and the Roadside Monuments, Stubblefield is composing the vast bulk of his songs on a guitar, albeit an acoustic this time, plunking out bass lines with his thumb and strumming the high notes with his index finger rather than using a pick. “It’s weird. I always noticed my friends in Bogalusa, the Petty Bones, never used picks when they played. I didn’t really set out to do that, but once I got out here to Austin, it just kinda happened,” Stubblefield says. (“Leaving Mississippi” and “A Girl from Tchoupitoulas Street” were the only two songs on Heartache to have been composed on the dulcimer.)

Stubblefield learned the limits of his own voice and sounds like himself for the first time – gone are the days when well-meaning friends would ask him why he “always sounded so mean” when he sang.

Indeed, he sounds downright genial on the orchestrally, lovely “Wear Your Smile,” with its warm swells of sonic sweetness, ably assisted by lead guitarist Robison. Opener “Too Little Too Late” recalls the gospel choirs Stubblefield absorbed as a child in north Louisiana, watching as his father orated from the pulpit each Sunday. Then there’s “Tonight I’m Just Looking to Get Laid,” which blossoms from lament to front-porch pick-and-grinner.

Stubblefield says that last song is indicative of his personal growth. He says hearing the Ryan Adams song “Hallelujah You’re Gone” was an epiphany. It made him realize that each and every break-up didn’t have to be a fresh apocalypse, and he says that breakthrough informs every song on the record.

“There have been times where the end of a relationship will drag me down for months and months and months,” he says. “So when I first heard that song I thought, ‘Damn that’s the attitude I have to have!’ Why am I always so woe is me? Don’t cry that it's over, be happy that it happened.”

Heartache in 4/4 Time also represents Stubblefield learning that he is, in fact, a musician. He can’t be anything else. “Writing and recording songs has more to do with my own personal well-being than it does with trying to get rich and famous with a hit,” he says. “It’s just a part of my life, and I have to do it, or I’m gonna go down the wrong path.”

He spent much of the latter part of the last decade on what he then truly believed was the right path, the conventional path. After moving from Nashville to Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 2003, he tried the straight life. “I’d been trying so hard to live a normal life in Mississippi, find the right woman, doing all these jobs…I was a restaurant manager for a while,” he remembers. “But every thing that I got involved with failed. So I was like, ‘I guess I’m supposed to be a musician.’”

Years ago, he need never have doubted that idea.

Let’s rewind back to 2001. Along with bowed dulcimer master and surrogate big brother Timmy Bryan, Stubblefield along with TJ Larkin and Jose Lovato, released The Leaper’s Fork, the first of two increasingly well-received and nationally-renowned albums. At the same time, Schnaufer was so pleased with the sounds that Stubblefield was getting out of his 4-track, when he showed up to add jew’s harp, banjimer, and Tennessee Music Box to the tracks, that he asked him to record a record for him and the result was Schnaufer’s first and only singing record Uncle Dulcimer. 2