John Starling passes

John Starling, one of the smoothest voices in bluegrass and a founding member of the Seldom Scene, died Thursday night in Fredericksburg, VA. The Grammy winner and member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame was 79.

Starling was the last surviving member of what is arguably the greatest vocal trio bluegrass has known. The blend of his voice with those of John Duffey and Mike Auldridge made songs like Wait A Minute, Body and Soul, and Out Among the Stars instant classics that still get played decades later. His death leaves his close friend Ben Eldridge and Tom Gray as the only surviving founders of the seminal band.

He had been in hospice care since early February, which gave time for a steady stream of visitors to reminisce and say goodbye. But that doesn’t mean the news many of us woke up to today is any easier, especially for his former bandmates and countless fans who hung on his every word, whether he was singing a Seldom Scene classic or telling a story from the 1970s, when Scene shows attracted the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Lowell George, the late leader of Little Feat.

Praise for Starling and expressions of sympathy for his family came from far and wide, from musicians to fans who remembered a favorite show or a merch table comment.

Dudley Connell, who has taken John’s role in Seldom Scene, remembers

“When I spoke with John Duffey in the late spring of 1995, I had been listening to and admiring the music of the Seldom Scene for over twenty years. At the time, I didn’t know John Starling personally, but Duffey often said that John Starling admired the lead singing of Carter Stanley. I had no idea that Starling and I shared that in common. I can hear it now. Listen to his take on The Fields Have Turned Brown. Hear what I mean? It’s country soul.

Over the past twenty something years of standing in his place, I soon realized that I could stand in his spot on stage, but no one was ever going to fill his shoes. John Starling was a vocal stylist; he made every song he sang his own. John Starling once told me that I ‘brought the blues into the Seldom Scene.’ My response to him, ‘well, you brought everything else.’

The Scene had a reunion show at the old Red Fox Inn a few years ago, and while John was singing on the small make shift stage, I stood behind the curtain with Emmylou and listened to him sing. For a while, we didn’t say a word to each other. Finally, Emmylou said to me, ‘John is still one of my favorite singers.’ My response to her, ‘John is irreplaceable.’ What I didn’t say was, there will likely be other great singers, but there will only be one John Starling and he will be missed.”

“One of the best singers ever,” said Tim Stafford of Blue Highway.

“In the early ’70s, the Seldom Scene brought me to the bluegrass party,” said Mark Brinkmanship, a prolific songwriter. “John Starling made me stay.”

Starling’s musical career started almost by accident, after serving as an Army surgeon in Vietnam. During a medical residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, he became friends with Eldridge and Auldridge. Soon they were jamming in Ben’s basement. Gray and Duffey, both formerly with the Country Gentlemen, joined the fun. The band played its first gig in 1971 and is still on the road, albeit without any of the founders.

Starling played guitar and was the lead singer until 1977, when he left to devote full time to his medical practice. Had that been the end of his musical career, it would have been stellar. But he returned to the Scene briefly in 1983, recorded a Grammy-winning album, Spring Training, with Carl Jackson in 1990, and formed a new band, John Starling and Carolina Star, when he retired as a surgeon in 2006.

He also made occasional reunion appearances with the Scene over the years.

I never got to see Starling or hear him sing live in his prime. (I’m thankful for YouTube!) But he did play a central role in one of my favorite bluegrass memories. It happened on October 20, 2013, when he and Gray joined the Scene (with Eldridge still on banjo) to play a fund-raising show for the DC Bluegrass Union. Also sitting in that night was Emmylou Harris, who sang at clubs in the DC area before she became a star. She and Starling were friends for decades. (Starling is credited with boosting her career by introducing Harris to Gram Parsons, though others take credit as well).

I shared a table that night with Starling, his son Jay, and Gray, among others. Starling was every bit as good a storyteller as a singer, and he was in fine form that night.

The evening became even better when he joined the band on stage. John, his voice a little shaky from years of not singing, still owned the room, especially on the opening lines of Wait a Minute.

“Wait a minute, Did I hear you say you’re goin’ far away again.”

For now, those words from Herb Pedersen, are a fitting place to stop.

We’ll have more later at Bluegrass Today, including information about services and more appreciations.

Thanks for the music and the stories, Dr. Starling. The rest of your trio is waiting.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.