An Austin octet of SXSW Picks 2 Click™
Starlings, TNTuesday, March 11, Valhalla, 9:30pm
After nearly 15 years in varying degrees of bandom, Starlings, TN finally made a true band album with last fall's All the Good Times. While bandleader/songwriter Steven Stubblefield's metaphysical Southern folk-bluegrass atmospherics remain intact, crackling jolts of rockabilly, punk, and blues bear the tell-tale imprimatur of group work. Though it wasn't recorded at Sun Studios as originally planned, that raw, earthy flavor seeps through.
With roots in Louisiana punk acts the Roadside Monuments and Habitual Sex Offenders, Starlings came to Austin by way of Nashville. Formed in 2000, the nascent project found footing through a barside friendship between Stubblefield, bowed dulcimer player Tim Bryan, and Vanderbilt dulcimer professor David Schnaufer. It was the latter, who played on recordings by Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris and died of lung cancer in 2006, who taught Stubblefield and Bryan how to play dulcimer, ultimately forgoing payment in the spirit of musical generosity.
Stubblefield lights up as he describes the first time he heard the Texas-born Schnaufer pull a bow across a homemade dulcimer built in the 1860s from a fencepost.
"When I heard that sound, it felt like the sound I'd been looking for all my life," he says.
After two albums, Stubblefield and Bryan had a falling out in 2003 and didn't speak for years. Stubblefield relocated to Hattiesburg, Miss., where most of his instruments and recording equipment were destroyed when Hurricane Katrina blew a tree down onto his house in 2005.
"I guess it was decided for me that I wasn't going to play music for a while," Stubblefield says.
Instead, he joined the post-Katrina relief effort, working on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse. The only music Stubblefield performed was gospel songs.
"My Baptist minister father was very proud of me at that time."
2010's How Dark It Is Before the Dawn was an emotionally rending return to form for Stubblefield.
"I've struggled with demons," he says. "I've struggled with various things my whole entire life and writing has always been kind of a therapy."
His confessionals began curling toward resiliency following a particularly ugly breakup that presaged his move to Austin.
"The woman actually murdered my dog," he claims. "It got really crazy. She sent a guy over to shoot guns into my house."
Heard in this context, All the Good Times Are Now becomes a yoke-throwing ode to survival.
"It reflects where we are and where we've been the last couple of years as a band," notes guitarist Bryan Robison.
Prior to Starlings, youthful stand-up bassist Mitchell Vandenburg served in the Army on musical morale missions, performing for troops in Baghdad.
"The USO comes through and they play the big bases," Vandenberg says. "We'd go to places like the shopping mall that was taken over in the middle of nowhere. Places where you don't take a shower because of survivability reasons."
Bryan's 2011 return to Starlings completed the circle. Now firing at full strength, the quartet's next move is a long-planned gospel album featuring what Bryan calls "the darkest version of 'Amazing Grace' ever recorded."