Black Music Matters Festival

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By Ken Burke, September 2001

Chris Casello, leader of The Starlight Drifters, tries to stay upbeat about the many personnel changes his band has gone through since it formed in 1996.

"It seems as though we've become the Spinal Tap of rockabilly rhythm sections. It happens every time a CD comes out." Warming to the theme he jokes, "Except for the exploding drummers -- we've had all the problems you could have."

Despite the loss of various members, Casello, whose band just released "Thirteen to Go," has kept the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based quartet vital players in the area's burgeoning roots-music scene. Moreover, with each succeeding project, their percolating rockabilly, honky-tonk and Western-swing stylings have earned them a nationwide following.

Casello, 39, is a veteran of many bands and styles. Equally adept on a variety of guitars as well as pedal steel, the Port Huron-born songwriter and instrumental wizard has played funky r&b for the Urbations, neo-rockabilly with The Untouchables, surf with the Prodigals and classic country with Driving Sideways.

Charismatic vocalist Bill Alton, 30, met Casello through another of the band's founding members, bassist Kenny Brown. The group's name is a tribute to Doug Poindexter's Starlight Wranglers (an obscure Sun Records act that spawned Elvis cohorts Scotty Moore and Bill Black) and Hank Williams' Drifting Cowboys.

Blending goosed up Johnny Horton, Faron Young and Hank Thompson covers with zippy originals, the Starlight Drifters quickly caught on with the younger rockabilly and swing crowds around Detroit and the University of Michigan area. Eventually, they even got to back up one of their revered rockabilly idols Jack Scott (who blessed their second disc with his written tribute). Naturally, the next step was the recording studio.

Recording for Casello's Dyna Electro label, the group, sans drums, cut the eight-song EP "Presenting The Starlight Drifters," featuring the tonsorial threat "Don't Mess Up My Hair" and the private eye noir of "Johnny Dynamite." Their history of revolving rhythm sections began when acoustic guitarist Mike Thompson and the aforementioned Brown quit, the latter joining another hot roots act, the (now defunct) Big Barn Combo.

Their second outing, 1999's "Every Note A Pearl," an impressive conceptual disc, should have cemented the band's identity and style. Instead, it signaled the departure of bassist Rudy Varner and drummer Marc Gray.

Such line-up disruptions would break the spirit of a less determined bandleader, but Casello remained philosophic, "You've got to have faith in something a little bigger. If you do follow your heart you'll find people somewhere down the road who will help you."

That help came in the form of cult rockabilly producer Ron Weiser.

Weiser, whose West Coast-based Rollin' Rock label is currently celebrating it's 30th anniversary, was intrigued by "the incredibly soulful voice of Bill Alton and Chris Casello's killer guitar playing style" and quickly signed the band.

But, what could the full-time commodities broker/part-time music honcho achieve in his home studio that the highly accomplished Starlight Drifters hadn't already done?

Contacted at his Las Vegas home, the 54-year-old Italian immigrant explains, "The previous two CDs were slightly clean sounding on some songs, although still great stuff. I preferred a more raw rockin' sound, 'The Rollin' Rock Sound'."

Casello's agrees and adds, "I think Ron got us to rock! Our last record leaned more heavily towards honky-tonk and Western Swing. Of course, when you're recording with Ron Weiser, it's like recording with John Wayne. He cares more about the performance than the production. Certainly, if bands are left to their own devices, they will get hung up on the sound quality and all the little things you can do. With Ron, if it wasn't happening live, it just wasn't happening. It was more a more emotive and powerful thing that way."

Initially, Weiser balked at some of the band's more off-beat selections like "Pretty Little Ring." "The funny thing is," recalls Casello. "I didn't think he wanted anything but rock. Then we started it playing it Calypso style. By the time he heard the back-up vocals and all the little Mexican guitar parts, he was loving all that stuff."

According to Casello, Weiser's recording technique mixes modern technology with old time acoustic. "We brought in some pretty fancy mikes, and we recorded the thing in one small room. One mike on the drums, all the harmonies were done with one mike, everything was bleeding, and we mixed most of it mono."

Though the Starlight Drifters have topped themselves with a superlative new album, once again they faced line-up changes as drummer Billy Mack Cowen and trumpet-playing bass-man Dave Roof departed.

"Now the guys who quit the band," explains Casello. "They may say that I'm one hard guy to deal with, but everybody gets paid pretty well in this group. Why they keep leaving -- you go down the list of reasons and we've hit 'em all -- everything, including personal and legal problems."

Currently, the band sports two new members with impressive credentials, drummer Mike Kissick, who has worked with another Michigan roots legend Steve Nardella, and bassist Artie Wolff, formerly of The Kingbees.

Will this potent ensemble stay together after they've played their next Rollin' Rock session? Stay tuned.