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Playback: T for Texas, T for Starlings, TN

Double dulcimer reunion and other musical Thanksgiving

By Kevin Curtin, Fri., Nov. 29, 2013

Playback: T for Texas, T for Starlings, TN
Photo by John Anderson

On a mission to inject Spiritualized's space rock into traditional bluegrass, Starlings, TN formed in Music City at the turn of the millennium. Two rockers, Steve Stubblefield and Tim Bryan, were taught to play the mountain dulcimer by their drinking buddy David Schnaufer, a nationally renowned authority on the traditional Appalachian instrument. It was well-received, likened by a Nashville critic to "Skip Spence & 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." Schnaufer, a music professor at Vanderbilt, lent the Starlings instant credibility by sitting in.

Then, in 2003, a falling out between Stubblefield and Bryan halted production.

"I was on a fast track to killing myself, and Tim was tired of watching it," admits Stubblefield. "Anyway, it was affecting the music."

Both men left Nashville and stopped speaking to each other.

Three years later, Schnaufer was diagnosed with lung cancer and quickly deteriorated. In their last phone conversation, Stubblefield told him he was quitting music.

"The last thing David ever said to me was, 'I know your heart and soul. You'll be making music again, trust me.'"

Bryan visited Schnaufer on his deathbed.

"He couldn't communicate, so I sat there and talked to him and he'd squeeze my hand when I said something he liked," remembers Bryan. "I promised him there would be another Starlings record."

Schnaufer was right. Stubblefield couldn't stay away from music. He resumed recording as Starlings, TN in 2009 and, in 2011, moved to Austin and began playing with his old friend Bryan Robison, who'd revolutionize Starlings' sound by adding electric guitar. They soon recruited Mitchell Vandenburg on upright bass. While recording 2012's Heartache in 4/4 Time, Stubblefield received a message from Tim Bryan, whom he hadn't spoken to in eight years. He wanted to come through and record on the album. Their friendship rekindled and Bryan moved down and joined the band, his effect-heavy dulcimer bowing becoming the final ingredient in the reconstructed Starlings.

Today, Starlings, TN are enjoying a second life, front and center on new LP All the Good Times (see "Texas Platters," p.54), which gets an official release at the Chicken Ranch Records Christmas Party Dec. 13 at the Longbranch Inn. You can also catch them this holiday weekend, 7-9pm, at the Driskill on Friday. At every gig, expect the local quartet to raise a glass and toast David Schnaufer. Without him, the two dulcimer players wouldn't be united today.

"We're closer now than ever," reports Stubblefield, smiling at his friend.

Black Fret

Lately, this column's drained a lot of ink discussing the measly payment of musicians in Austin, and the potential consequence that our culture makers won't be able to afford making art, or worse, skip town. In that regard, Austin has a lot to lose.

There's no one solution, but there are folks in town working to add a little green to the scene. A new nonprofit called Black Fret seeks to build an endowment to benefit local musicians. Next year, its members will select 10 local acts to receive $10,000 grants.

"These people, who devote themselves to creating something beautiful that adds value to everyone's lives, are struggling," says founder Colin Kendrick of the organization's fine arts patronage. "Our goal is to provide direct financial assistance to Austin's finest musicians."

Black Fret raises money through members, each of whom pays $1,500 a year. That body then nominates recipients, as does an advisory board of music industry veterans and, in coming years, past recipients. Nominations will be dually based on Austin Music Awards results – announced in March and voted on in October. Since launching in January 2013, they've accumulated 60 members with an ultimate goal of 1,300 and $25,000 in grants.

That kind of dough is enough for a band to get a new tour van, make an album, or allow a songwriter to quit his or her soul-crushing day job.

Members' primary perk is receiving a cultivated review of the music scene. The organization throws frequent members-only house parties and each grant recipient plays a fully staged performance. Next up: a launch party featuring Ben Kweller and Emily Bell on Sat., Jan. 18 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom, free for members, with limited tickets available for potential members. Info at www.blackfret.org.

"This isn't really a need-based argument – it's about artistic excellence," stresses Kendrick, a founding member of the Austin Music Foundation. "We're trying to find the best Austin musicians and give them the fuel they need to take it to the next level."

Half Notes

Fishbone commander Angelo Moore hits tony Eastside joint Justine's Brasserie on Monday at 10pm for an intimate show that's bound to include singing, poetry, saxophone wailing, theremin mischief, and all-around performance art. The funky, eclectic Moore recently collaborated on a few songs with Austin's Jason and Johnny Moeller for the upcoming Moeller Brothers album. Later, they ganged up for a show in Paris and a new project, known as the Madd Vibe-Moeller Extraction.

Scott H. Biram teases his newly announced LP Nothin' but Blood, out Feb. 4 on Bloodshot Records, with a 7-inch single hitting shelves on Black Friday. The one-man-band goes gospel on A-side "When I Die." "People are going to think I'm a fuckin' Christian when they hear this," Biram joked upon debuting for "Playback" the soul-saving track, which hangs on the line, "When I die, I'm gonna see my Jeee-zuhs." The flip side features local songwriter Jesse Vain dueting with Biram on "John the Revelator."

Ume inked a deal with Dangerbird Records, which will release the hard-charging trio's sophomore album in early 2014. During an interview in September, guitarist Lauren Larson told me these recordings sound more realistic than their 2011 debut Phantoms. "In the past, our albums have been one experience and the live show is another. This album will bring it together."

› A tour bus carrying members of Willie Nelson's band crashed into a bridge pillar on I-30 near Sulphur Springs last Saturday, demolishing the vehicle's front end and causing three hospitalizations, including drummer Paul English, who broke his hip. Nelson, who wasn't on board because he has a separate bus, postponed his remaining November tour dates.

› Christmas comes early as the Invincible Czars host their 10th annual Dance-It-Yourself Nutcracker Suite, a zany, amped-up version of Tchaikovsky's holiday classic. On Saturday at the Spider House Ballroom, 2pm, the Czars perform a family-friendly matinee with dancers to lead the children. At 10pm, the louder, longer, adult-only version comes out, followed by a performance from funky, visually impaired toe-suckers Foot Patrol.

Residual Kid meets Redd Kross

Teen Babes from Monsanto: Residual Kid and Steve McDonald (right)
Teen Babes from Monsanto: Residual Kid and Steve McDonald (right)

Earlier this month, after local noise-punk trio Residual Kid played a club gig in Los Angeles, a new fan approached them for a photo. Low and behold, it was Steve McDonald of L.A. legends Redd Kross and hardcore supergroup Off! While on tour in South America, McDonald told the Chronicle, "Residual Kid is my new favorite band. They fuck shit up just right." Residual Kid management confirmed that the bassist plans to produce a recording session with the kids in 2014. McDonald, who began his punk rock career at age 11, no doubt feels a kinship with Residual Kid, all of whom are too young to drive.

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