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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.’”
"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