One thing that DMV bluegrass fans know is that dobroist Jay Starling sure gets around. Over the last few months, Jay has performed three stellar shows at three different venues with three different bands: playing with Keller Williams’ Thanksforgrassgiving at the 9:30 Club; ringing in the new year with Love Canon at The Pearl Street Warehouse; and headlining The Hamilton with friends. Embodying the idea of six degrees of separation, one would be hard pressed to find bluegrass talent with whom Starling has not shared the stage or the festival.
Son of Seldom Scene founder John Starling, afforded Jay the opportunity to experience the bluegrass’s best from an early age. The Hill Rag recently sat down with Jay to talk about his copious collaborations, impressive musicianship and his childhood.
Can you share a bit about some of the musicians you have worked with and some of the projects you have participated in?
Yeah, I’ve been really lucky and honored to play with some great acts! I chalk it up to fortunate lineage and a high demand for dobro players! (Laughing) Keller Williams has really helped me to no end. Can’t thank him enough, honestly. He’s been so kind to get me a slew of gigs and instruments over the years across a bevy of his side projects. Through him, I’ve gotten to meet and collaborate with Vince Herman and Leftover Salmon, SCI, Jeff Austin, Jeff Sipe and Larry Keel. Matt Butler from Everyone Orchestra has also really helped me out. I really love what he does in that he makes our small community even smaller. I probably wouldn’t get the opportunity to play with and meet Oteil otherwise. He also introduced me to Scott Stoughton of WinterWonderGrass, who has been kind enough to have me as an artist at large the last three years.
Also, I have a lot to owe Jesse Harper formerly of Old School Freight Train and current lead singer of Love Canon, of which I’m the dobro player. Jesse courted me to move to Charlottesville, take over his old teaching job and join the band. That was HUGE for me at that time as I was a quintessential strugglufugus of a musician. Wait…I still am! Ha! Other groups I’ve been lucky to sit in with are Seldom Scene, Peter Rowan, Emmylou Harris and a few more.
How would you describe your own musical genre? How has that genre changed or evolved over the years?
In terms of genre that I’m into or play? I tend toward roots music I suppose and some evolution and derivations of such. I listened and enjoyed everything from Chopin to N.W.A, Tony Rice to Wu-Tang to Sun-Ra! I played classical piano as a child and quickly got entranced by blues guitar. I suppose The Allman Brothers were my gateway there. Really used to shed a bunch of Stevie Ray, Albert Collins-then Jeff Beck and David Gilmore. These were obviously my electric guitar days. Played keys in a reggae band, drums in a fusion band, keys in a jazz quintet. Picked up a dobro and started learning to pick and sing bluegrass. That’s led to the most travel/work. Whatever I play probably has elements of all the crap that’s been floating around my head all these years! Who knows anymore!
What instruments are your favorites to play and why?
I think I play several different instruments because of ADD! As I found new music, I was drawn to different sounds and wanted to make said sounds. I also think I picked up different instruments to compensate for stylistic inadequacies I had on certain ones. For example, I learned drums because I fell in love with fusion music. Had NO idea how to take my Knopfler, Allman Brothers, SRV guitar style to that music…so I just got more into drums. Probably lazy and maybe shortsighted, but I feel like drumming has really helped my sense of time. I’m also a terrible bluegrass guitar player because of that confounded plectrum!
Dobro was a way I could use my finger style and finally be a functional bluegrass player. What is my favorite to play? I think it’s a bit all the same. I’m having the most fun on whatever I’m playing at the moment. At the end of the day, it’s all music and personal expression through chord changes rhythm and melody. The mechanism may be different, but the end result is the same.
Can you share an anecdote about growing up in the Starling household?
Growing up in the Starling household wasn’t AS musical as one might expect. He (my father) was great about letting me discover it all on my own. Don’t get me wrong, music was usually playing in the house, and I think I gravitated toward it as a child in Alabama.
But, when a babysitter played Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” is when that the switch got permanently turn to the on position. I was only about eight, but the second she played “Fur Elise,” I insisted she show it to me. After that my parents got me classical lessons down the street.
My dad was always more than nurturing from getting me instruments to turning me on to Little Feat, Ry Cooder, The Band, but we never really “picked” much. He was doing his doctor thing and rarely got out the guitar. He also made sure I was interested in sports, which was great. He’s an impossibly well-rounded individual, so if I can even achieve 1/8 of what he had to offer, I’d feel “OK” about that.
My mother also really turned the musical corner for me too. I made fun of this denim covered CD she had just gotten from Sam Goody, “What’s THAT?!” I remember saying mockingly. She said, “The Allman Brothers.” When I heard, Hoochie Coochie Man, my world changed immediately!
Always gracious, Jay Starling exudes an endearing humbleness that belies both his talent and his lineage. His gratitude for the gifts he has been given is palpable. In such a prolific career, the successes are there. The Charlottesville, Virginia bluegrass, ‘80s cover band, Love Canon recently signed with Moonstruck Management and Organic Records. They are getting ready to release their fourth album, “Cover Story,” this spring. Fortunately for music lovers, Love Canon will be back performing at Pearl Street Warehouse on April 13.
A concert junky, music aficionado, and live music reviewer for Hill Rag and DC Music Review, Leanne Tankel studied writing at both UC Berkeley (BA) and Boston University (MA). In addition to music reviews, she writes prose, and her manuscript, Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage, was a 2011 short-list finalist for the Santa Fe Literary Awards program. Leanne lives with her three sons and two pugs in Northern Virginia.