From Virginia today comes that somber news that John Starling, a founding member of the Seldom Scene, is seriously ill.
“It’s been a long two months, but my father, John Starling, is currently home and in hospice,” his son, Jay Starling told friends and fans on social media this morning.
Starling, 78, started the Scene with John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and Mike Auldridge in 1971. The band moved from regular jam sessions in Eldridge’s Bethesda, MD basement, to weekly gigs at local bluegrass clubs that were as popular then as nail parlors are now in and around Washington, DC.
Starling’s rhythm guitar and smooth vocals help drive the Scene from local band to major sensation, and gave bluegrass music a shot in the arm at a time when it was starting to fade.
“It’s always been a good group of guys,” Starling told me in an interview a few years ago. “We always cared about each other, and that’s what made it fun.”
Starling, who was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s hall of fame with other original members of the band and won a Grammy, never claimed to be a star, but he loved to point out when critics were wrong.
“A good friend heard us one night at the Rabbit’s Foot” in the early years, Starling recalled. “He said Duffey’s and Starling’s voices don’t blend, and they never will.”
Actually, Starling did have a hard time singing with the big-voiced Duffey initially. Starling’s first attempt was at a Christmas party. “I got up to sing with Duffey and I tried to sing as loud as he was, and I couldn’t go 10 minutes before I had no voice,” he recalled with a chuckle.
“So, basically, when we would sing together, he would let me get closer to the microphone and he would kind of turn his head away so he could sing as loud as he wanted to without blowing me away.”
Starling left the group to focus on his medical training and practice, but returned for a second stint and made occasional reunion appearances over the years. One of the best was on October 20, 2013, when the current band, Starling and Gray played a fundraising show for the DC Bluegrass Union. The night was made extra special by a guest appearance from Emmylou Harris.
One of the highlights of the night for me was sharing a table with John and Jay Starling and Tom Gray. The stories from John flowed freely that night. And the music was heavenly, especially when Starling shared singing duties on Wait a Minute, perhaps the band’s best known song.
In today’s announcement, Jay Starling asked, “If you’re inclined, put on some old Seldom Scene today…(and) send some good vibes.”
I’ll be doing that, and you should, too. Wait a Minute is a fine choice, but just about anything from the band’s early years will bear his stamp.
You see, Duffey was the clear leader of the band, but Starling had an outsize role in picking material. As he recalled, “We took a bunch of demos to Duffey, who was watching a movie. After an hour, he said, ‘I don’t want to listen to all this stuff. You learn ‘em, and I’ll tell you if we’ll do ‘em or not.”
Starling and his mates picked some wonderful material, and Duffey agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thanks, John Starling, for incredible music and stories. Safe passage.