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"Imagine 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..." - Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene
"Where the mountain meets space." - Jim Beal, San Antonio Express
"...as adept at songcraft as they are at chilling atmospherics. Stubblefield’s originals prove as varied as they are addictive..." - Jerry Withrow, No Depression
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. 2003’s "Between Hell and Baton Rouge", the second of those records for Starlings, TN, further advanced the band’s organically psychedelic, mountain dulcimer-based 19th Century techno sound, one that somehow managed to combine Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Spiritualized, Prince Albert Hunt, Yo La Tengo, and the Velvet Underground.
In January of 2004, the band was featured on NPR’s "All Things Considered", which praised their “odd electronic atmospheres with dulcimers, slide guitars, and songs of love lost.” On the outside, the future looked bright. On the inside, it was starting to fray. The band had always been wild, but by 2004 it was starting to get a little out of control.
At any rate, the Bryan-Stubblefield partnership continued through the release of "Between Hell and Baton Rouge", but by then it was already starting to unravel. Bryan, freshly married and with a newborn daughter, was alarmed by Stubblefield’s excesses. Bryan told him he wasn’t going to stand by while Stubblefield killed himself, so he left the band.
And Stubblefield left Nashville. He headed south for Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he produced other bands and slowly started losing interest in music. And then, in August of 2005, there came Hurricane Katrina. The storm tossed a tree on to his roof, crushing his house and destroying his beloved dulcimer and banjimer, several other instruments, a hard drive containing a nearly-completed album, and thousands of dollars in recording equipment.
A week or so after the storm, shortly after cell service was restored, he got a call from Schnaufer. Stubblefield recalls telling Schnaufer that he was done with music for the foreseeable future. He told his mentor that he was going to get a paying gig for a charity called Samaritan’s Purse, maybe start a family and settle down.
“And Schnaufer said, ‘Maybe that is something you need to do right now, but I know you, and I know that your body, soul and mind won’t allow you to do that for very long. You are gonna come back to it.’”
It took a while, but he has. But not before more trials. That conversation would be the last Stubblefield would have with Schnaufer, who kept secret a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer until he entered a hospice. His death came in August of 2006 and both Stubblefield and Bryan were devastated. Bryan set down his dulcimer for a full three years afterward, and Stubblefield might have done the same were it not for a woman who heard some of his recordings and told him he needed to bring music back into his life.
He got started in 2008, writing and recording and discarding the results over and over again. Finally, he decided to start recording some covers. “’In My Life,’ was the first one I did,” he says. “And then I did Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long Marianne’ and a Camper Van Beethoven song,” he says, along with several more. He went on to add, “I was just trying to make the process fun again.” He sent the tapes to Chicken Ranch Records honcho Michael Dickinson to see what he thought, and Dickinson told him he was ready to release them as an album. Stubblefield was stunned, as he regarded the tapes as demos, but Dickinson stood firm, and the album came out as Under the Influence.
Stubblefield was not yet out of the woods psychologically. He recalls being about 70 pounds overweight and depressed just before Under the Influence came out. He was still partying too hard, and it finally all came crashing down. He had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a psych ward for a 72-hour evaluation.
That was the beginning of the end of the dark days for Stubblefield. That breakdown led him to kick his worst habits, lose weight, release an aptly-titled album of mostly original material, "How Dark It Is Before The Dawn", and move to Austin in February of 2011.
Once there, he reconnected with Robison whom he had played with twenty years ago in The Roadside Monuments, and the two started jamming some. A month after getting to town, Stubblefield and Robison were performing during SXSW at day parties. That summer, Robison took some time away to get married, and by the fall the pair were playing shows around Austin. Stubblefield continued writing new songs, and reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, most notably Tim Bryan.
“I basically just thanked him,” Stubblefield says. “I told him that I knew that the decision he made in ’03 was probably one of the hardest decisions he’d ever had to make and that I wanted him to know that I appreciated him doing it. I don’t know if I could have done the same. He walked away from me only the way a true friend could.”
As it happened, Bryan was by then divorced, and his ex-wife and daughter were living in San Antonio. Bryan, who now lives in Wisconsin, suggested that he come down early for a visit when it was time to collect his little girl for their summer visitation. Stubblefield eagerly agreed. Bryan also put it out there that he would be willing to record on any album Stubblefield was working on.
“I was like ‘YES! Absolutely,” Stubblefield says. He sent Bryan some roughs of "Heartache in 4/4 Time" and by the time Bryan got to Austin, he was ready. “He was here for about three days and we only spent about six hours recording,” Stubblefield remembers. “He was really prepared. It was like working with Schnaufer again. You just walk in, turn on a mic, cut him loose, and it’s done!”
Later, Stubblefield and Robison met upright bassist Mitchell Vandenburg via Craigslist and saw his musicianship right away. A veteran Army musician fresh off tours of duty in Iraq and Korea, Vandenburg’s addition balances the low end and frees everyone up to just play. Elizabeth Jackson’s fiddle graces three tunes and she duets with Stubblefield on the wry, surreal “Dry County in Hell,” which recalls, to these ears anyway, some of Townes Van Zandt’s stranger, funnier story-songs, such as “Billy, Boney and Ma” and “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” Jerry and Anne Crowell provide string and vocal support on the Si Kahn cover “Aragon Mill,” the only selection Stubblefield had no hand in writing.
“I’m standing in the sunshine and there’s no cloud over me,” Stubblefield says now. And when you listen to "Heartache in 4/4 Time", it’s likely you will feel the same way.
Release date: Mar 13, 2012