John Starling died on May 3. We didn’t lose him — we can conjure him in spirit and song — but he died.
What a man. What a musician.
Beginning in 1971, he was a lead singer for the Seldom Scene, a pioneering band that brought modern and progressive musical and lyrical sensibilities into bluegrass music. And he made some remarkable solo (with friends and admirers) albums. And he and Carl Jackson won a Grammy for their bluegrass album, Spring Training.
He was an unheralded force behind the Trio albums made by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt.
He was so much more. A surgeon, and even an architect. And a bluegrass Hall of Fame member. And a kind fellow who helped others with empathy even as he insisted stubbornly and correctly on excellence and creative honesty. He commanded respect without ushering commands.
Cowboy Jack Clement used to say that singers are a pain, because “they’ll never show you their real voice.” Starling sang in his real voice, which was lower-pitched and more relaxed than the voices of other bluegrass musicians.
Early on, he tried to sing as high and loud as other folks (especially his Seldom Scene bandmate, John Duffey), and he wound up hoarse and wrong. But then he arrived at himself.
Other bluegrass singers were roosters in the Kentucky dawn. Starling was a cricket in the Shenandoah dusk.
His voice and phrasing were of crucial impact to artists ranging from the genius Tony Rice to country stars Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kenny Chesney (The Chesney part might initially seem improbable, until you realize that he listened incessantly to the Seldom Scene, and you hear his vocal on “You and Tequila” and other ballads).
Starling was a bemused kingpin of the Washington, DC bluegrass scene that was an unlikely shot in the arm for the music, bringing what was thought of as a rural art form to an urban center. The Seldom Scene’s shows were proof of bluegrass’s potency, diversity, and immediacy.
He was a superb songwriter who wrote very few songs. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Starling’s “C&O Canal” and “All the Way to Texas” stand with anyone’s compositions. But mostly Starling listened to other people’s songs, and he recognized what Kris Kristofferson calls “truth and beauty.” Then he advocated for those songs, whether it was to Emmylou, or to the Seldom Scene. He was early to understand the power of songs by John Prine, Norman Blake, and, especially, Paul Craft.
Oh, and Rodney Crowell, who met lifelong musical partner Emmylou Harris in Starling’s home. Early on, Starling sang a Crowell tune called “Song For Life” (also recorded as “Song for the Life,” but it’s the same song). Starling sang Crowell’s words, “Somehow, I learned how to listen, to a sound like the sun going down.”
Seems like learning how to listen is among Starling’s most valuable lessons. When we listen to him, we hear a sound like the sun going down.