Dr. John Starling slides back into action

C. Eric Banister, March 2007

Although John Starling's name is up front on the new John Starling and Carolina Star project "Slidin' Home," it is strictly a group effort between the vocalist/guitarist and Dobro player Mike Auldridge and bassist Tom Gray.

"They suggested I take the heat and put my name up front, so I grudgingly agreed to do that," Starling jokes.

The decision was made as a group, the same way all of their decisions are made. "This group that we have, it's not a boss man band. It's what I call a Three Musketeers band like Seldom Scene was, everybody's got an opinion," laughs Starling, referring to the band the three used to call home. "It's not John Starling telling everyone what to do, it's mostly everyone telling me what to do."

The three principle members of Carolina Star - Starling, Auldridge and Gray - have played together off and on since 1971. After completing medical school and a stint in Vietnam as a surgeon, Starling moved to Washington D.C. for his residency where he met Auldridge and Ben Eldridge. They began playing music in the basement as a boys' night out activity. John Duffey, who had left the Country Gentlemen and returned to his day job as a luthier, soon joined the parties. Soon, Duffey called another former Country Gentlemen, Gray, to join on bass, and Seldom Scene was born.

"John just said he had two rules for the band," Starling recalls. "One, no big deals because he didn't want to get involved in trying to make a million bucks. He just wanted to have fun playing music. He said we weren't going to do 'Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms' over and over. That's the other rule."

"So, the band sort of started on that note, and everyone kept their day job, and we worked just one night a week in a club in Washington. John didn't like to practice very much. So, it took us about two or three years, and we finally got fairly good, but the main thing was we just had fun."

The band had a successful run until 1977, when Starling made the decision to leave the band. "I finally decided I needed to go ahead and do what I was originally trying to do, which was practice medicine," he says. "Although you never really retire from music, I just kind of left the band and actually moved to Montgomery, Ala."

"But you never really stop, you're always thinking about music. It's great therapy in the long run."

After a two solo albums and a collaboration with Carl Jackson, Starling returned to Seldom Scene in 1993. "They lost their lead singer. He left the band, and they had to have a lead singer. So, they just wanted to know if I'd fill in until they could find one," he says. "So, I did, and I stayed with the band long enough that we recorded another record, but I began to realize that it was taking too much time away from my medical practice."

In 1994, Starling left the group for a second time. This time it wasn't only his medical practice pulling him away. "My son was 14; I decided to spend a little time trying to raise him," he laughs.

Starling continued to be involved with music on a more local and regional level during his time out of the spotlight. "When I was down in Alabama, I got together with Claire Lynch, and we got together a little band and went around and played some," he says. "Except we started to have a hard time finding venues, and I began to realize that more people live in the Metropolitan Washington area than in the whole state of Alabama. And I began to realize how priceless it was, even though we didn't want to make a big deal out of it, to have a one night a week club job in a big metropolitan area the same night every week. You don't have to look in the paper to see if they are going to be there."

In addition to that he did some studio work with his old friend George Massenburg. "I did work with him on the two Trio records," he says. "We sort of did co-producing collaboration on that, and that was a lot of fun."

The friendship with Massenburg goes back to the early days of Seldom Scene when he was the engineer on the albums "Act III" and "Old Train." Massenburg then did work for Lowell George and Earth, Wind and Fire before moving to Los Angeles to become, as Starling says, "a big audio star out there."

His friendship with Massenburg acted as one of the catalysts for the new project - "just being able to work with George Massenburg again, because you know that even if you sound bad, he'll make you sound good without using Autotune," he chuckles.

Massenburg's encouragement was only one factor among many that prodded Starling into action. "It was a number of things. George Massenburg suggested I do it; (Emmylou Harris) always said why don't you make another record?" he says.

"And the thought of getting Mike and Tom back together again. Actually, we had tried to talk Ben into coming down there, but we never could work out the logistics and his schedule to get it done, so we figured if Ben Eldridge couldn't play banjo on it there wouldn't be any banjo on it; it's a banjo-less record. Plus the fact that I was retiring from practicing medicine and looking for a little musical outlet, we just felt the timing was right to do it."

The seeds for this reunion were planted in 2005 at a benefit concert for Eddie Adcock in Washington D.C. "I knew they (Auldridge and Gray) were going to be there, and I called Ben, and he came, and Larry Stephenson was there," Starling recalls. "We just went up there, Larry sang tenor and the other four of us were original members of Seldom Scene, just went up and did a show. We worked it up backstage, and next thing you know, we had so much fun, we decided to do another couple of shows."

With encouragement from Massenburg and an attentive audience base, Starling, Auldridge and Gray decided to go into the studio and record a few songs to see how things went. "We liked it and decided to come back to Washington and put together a group that would go out and play it and decided to take a couple of Beltway bandits, Jimmy Gaudreau and Richie Simpkins, who also live in the Washington area and went back and finished the album with that group," he says.

Gaudreau and Simpkins had crossed paths with the other members for years. "Both of them have played with Tony Rice for a number of years. Of course Jimmy replaced John Duffey in the Country Gentlemen. Rickie...I first met him when he was playing with the Virginia Squires and Mark Newton."

When it came time to pick songs, the group dynamic was fully in play with each member having input into songs ranging from the beginnings of country music to more modern tunes written by friends.

"'Waitin' for a Train,' that's just sort of where it all began. I've always been fond of Jimmie Rodgers things and turns out Mike Auldridge's uncle, Ellsworth Cozzens, actually played on the original track with Jimmie Rodgers," he says.

Another nod to country's roots is their take on Hank William's "Never Take Her Love From Me." "That was just one I wanted to make a Dobro tour de force, and I think we succeeded in that," Starling says. "That's one of the reasons we're calling it 'Slidin' Home.' There's a number of metaphors in that title, but not the least of which is the fact that, at least to my ears, some of the best slide guitar playing I've ever heard Mike do. It was just so much fun to hear that again."

Two of the albums tracks are songs from peers, which have meant a great deal to Starling. The first is the Little Feat song "Willin'." "It was the first song I heard when I got back from Vietnam; I went down to Union Street in San Francisco in January 1970 and happened to see a young guy and young girl singing 'Willin''' at a club down there. I went up to them afterward and found out some rock band in L.A. had done it, which was Little Feat, but I didn't know that at the time," he says.

"Over time and a series of circumstances, I met Lowell, and we became real good friends. I've always loved that song I just didn't think the world needed another version of it, but Mike Auldridge talked me into doing it. Maybe so he could play lap steel using Lowell's old amp because literally he did."

"I think my favorite song on there is the Gram Parsons song," he says of "In My Hour Of Darkness." "Emmylou Harris called me, oh, this was a number of years ago, maybe five or six years ago, we took a little trip up to New England and did a benefit concert for a college up there where Gram Parsons' old dorm counselor when he was a freshman at Harvard was, I think, a dean there."

"We worked this song up in the hotel room before we went over to play the show, and I just couldn't get it off my mind. It was just about the time we lost John Duffey, and I was trying to figure out something to write or some way to let people know how much we missed him, some sort of elegy, and I never could come up with it."

First time I heard this, I just went a little bit nuts, I thought it was great. Gram Parsons lost three close friends, actually two close friends in a year and was about to lose another one, and he wrote this song. The first verse, as I understand, is about Brandon de Wilde who was the young boy in 'Shane,' and he was a friend of Gram's in L.A. and died in an automobile accident outside of Denver. The second verse is about Clarence White, who played with The Byrds. The third verse nobody knows, and that's probably better. It's just a beautiful song."

Besides singing on that song, Harris will be taking John Starling and Carolina Star out for a few shows. And as is a mantra of sorts for Starling, it's about having fun. "She plays some venues now that sort of calls for an acoustic group, sort of bluegrass, a little bit like the Nash Ramblers, and we're playing some shows with her. We may do Telluride with her and go back out play San Francisco and one or two others this year in addition to the stuff we're going to play, so we're having fun."

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