Album of the Week #27 – John Starling’s Long Time Gone

Long Time Gone - John StarlingThese days, it seems like everyone is putting out a solo project. Much of the time, solo projects are a great way for an artist to showcase his interests in a more personal manner. Often times, solo projects are a labor of love placing the artist’s talents in the spotlight. While there are some exceptional solo albums coming out today, if we turn back the clock, there is a wealth of solo albums which sometimes are overlooked in the bluegrass catalog. One of these is John Starling’s Long Time Gone.

In 1978, John Starling, a founding member of The Seldom Scene, departed the group to concentrate on his medical career. In 1980, he hooked up with Sugar Hill Records to release Long Time Gone. Featuring a “who’s who” cast, the music had an obvious appeal to both his many bluegrass fans, and to fans of the developing Americana scene.

It should be no surprise that Starling’s musical interests went past the borders of bluegrass. Arguably the most influential progressive bluegrass band of their time, the Seldom Scene has been doing material that is “outside of the box” for forty years. One of their first big hits was Starling’s rendition of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. So one could only assume that John would push the envelope on his own. He did not disappoint.

James Taylor’s influence is clear right off the bat. The Taylor-esque title track is a perfect compliment to Starling’s voice. His soulful lyrics matched with progressive instrumental work including drums, piano, slide and steel guitars, is accomplished brilliantly. While staunch traditionalists at the time scowled and said it was too “hippie-sounding,” the talent showcased here should not be overlooked. Throughout the record, Starling surround himself with the best in the business, and this track is no exception.

I was particularly thrilled to see Buddy Emmons on Long Time Gone. Perhaps the best steel guitar player of all time, his masterful use of the instrument adds to Starling’s sound without being too alienating for those with constricted tastes.

But never fear, the album does have it’s more traditional moments. This alternating between progressive and traditional is part of its charm, and Starling reaches both ends of the spectrum in style.

The title track is a stark contrast to the brother style Gospel songs included, like Drifting Too Far From The Shore. Not straying too far from a Louvin/Monroe/Delmore brothers style, the only addition to John Starling and Ricky Skaggs is tasteful dobro from Mike Auldridge. Ricky and John’s voices blend beautifully here, as ever.

Skaggs pops up frequently here. Another highlight with Ricky is Carolyn At The Broken Wheel Inn. An adult song from a cheater’s perspective, it contains a mature quality that much of today’s country music lacks. The simple instrumentation allows the focus to be on the song itself. John’s emotional delivery conveys the dichotomy the song’s subject faces: wanting to be a good husband vs. succumbing to temptation. Ricky Skaggs’ harmony vocals as well as his mandolin and fiddle work echo the sentiment in John’s voice.

One of Starling’s most moving performances here is his rendition of the Willie Nelson hit, Last Thing I Needed. You can almost see the tears streaming down his face as he sings. The first time he hits the song’s signature line (“The last thing I needed, the first thing this morning, was to have you walk out on me.”), it gives you goosebumps. An experienced vocalist, he knows not to oversing the song, and the control in his voice is a chief reason this recording is so moving. It sounds like at any moment, he could break down and cry, but yet he doesn’t, making the song all the more heartbreaking. This version of Last Thing I Needed is a real masterpiece.

The CD version of this album includes four bonus tracks, which fit seamlessly with the rest of the album. One assumes that they were intended to be included on the original album, but the time constraint on LP’s caused them to be cut from the master project. Regardless, it’s a treat to have them on the compact disc.

One of these bonus tracks is Starling’s take on a traditional standard. Emmylou Harris joins John for Dark Hallow. This is one of the “grassiest” cuts on the album. It’s only progressive element is a rhythmic snare drum, which bolsters the recording without being a distraction. Listening to Dark Hallow compared to Last Thing I Needed really showcases Starling’s ability as a master of many styles (as if we didn’t already know that from his work with The Scene). Mike Auldridge is also a star on this track, showcasing why he is a pioneer in the sound of the modern dobro.

Another bonus track on the album, Roads And Other Reasons could be my favorite. The only other verion of this song I have been able to find is on an out of print Gene Watson LP from 1981 (if you know of any other versions, let me know). I can’t understand why this hasn’t been a hit for someone yet. It is a poetic masterpiece.

I’m just here and you can hold me on the nights you need a man
But it’s nicer when I know you understand
That the only thing that lingers is the feeling of my fingers
As they touched your olive body and you melted in my hands

I’m surprised Don Williams hadn’t made a hit out of this song back in the day. It’s beautifully rich lyrics contain an emotional depth which few songs successfully achieve. Emmylou Harris’ hauntingly mystic harmony matches Starling’s voice brilliantly. It’s a perfect vocal blend. Roads And Other Reasons is a true gem.

Other great songs on Long Time Gone include Sin City, Lonesome Whistle, and He Rode All The Way To Texas. Combine a great variety of songs with an all-star crew including John Cowan, Tony Rice, Herb Pedersen, The Seldom Scene, Sam Bush, and more, this is an album you don’t want to miss. If you’re looking for an album that’s a little bit out of the box with something for everyone, don’t overlook Long Time Gone.

Long Time Gone is available on Sugar Hill Records (SH-3714). Hard copies can be purchased through County Sales and the Classic Country Connection. The album can be downloaded digitally via iTunes and Amazon MP3.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.