John Starling remembered

John Starling, who possessed one of the most cultured voices in bluegrass music, passed away on Thursday, May 2, 2019 at his Fredericksburg, Virginia, home. 

From 1971, when the Seldom Scene was formed, to 1977 when he left the band, Starling was at the epicenter of bluegrass music in Washington DC. He recorded six albums with the group as the lead vocalist and guitarist. 

Also, for about 30 years he worked full-time as an ear, nose and throat surgeon. 

Early in that period he released a solo album, Long Time Gone, followed by another, Waiting on A Southern Train, and enjoyed musical liaisons with Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt — he was the musical consultant for the award-winning Trio albums (Harris, Ronstadt and Dolly Parton) as well — and Claire Lynch, with whom he collaborated to form the group Ready Section. 

Starling was a guest at two significant Seldom Scene concerts, both of which were recorded, producing 15th Anniversary Celebration: Live at the Kennedy Center (released in 1988) and Scene 20: A 20th Anniversary Concert (1992). He was a guest also on Long Time.. Seldom Scene for which they re-recorded 16 oft-requested songs and tunes (2014). 

In the early 1990s, Starling recorded an album, Spring Training, with Carl Jackson before returning briefly to the Seldom Scene. 

The original Seldom Scene

It would be over a decade later before Starling would again be involved in music to any great degree, when he joined Ben Eldridge and Tom Gray to play several shows as The Seldom Seniors. An outgrowth from that was a part-time band, Carolina Star, with Starling, Mike Auldridge, Rickie Simpkins, Tom Gray, and Jimmy Gaudreau. Their only recording, Slidin’ Home, was released in February 2007. 

Starling was among the other surviving original members of the Seldom Scene who combined with then current members to perform at the Seldom Scene’s 40th Anniversary show at their regular haunt, the Birchmere, itself an institution in the Washington DC area. 

Some of his fellow musicians and followers have agreed to share some memories,  

Carl Jackson enjoyed several leisure moments and had plenty of laughs with Starling …….

“When John and I decided to make an album together, we specifically set out with a goal of trying to produce something ‘Grammy worthy.’ I remember us sitting at the Rivergate Cooker in Goodlettsville and me saying to him, ‘well, if we’re gonna do it, let’s win a Grammy!’ It was a very special moment in New York City when Spring Training was announced as Best Bluegrass Album of 1991, and that dream became a reality. John and I made some wonderful music and memories together that I will cherish for the rest of my life. We also shared a deep love for the game of golf, and made it a point to play some of the great courses, such as the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. One time we decided to hit the Robert Trent Jones Trail down through Alabama, which we jokingly dubbed the ‘Waffle House Tour,’ thanks to our early morning breakfasts and the 36 holes of golf that followed for several days in a row. The name also paid tribute to the fact we were much better at eating breakfast than we were at playing golf!”

John McEuen remembers Starling introducing him to Emmylou Harris …… 

“Once in early 1973 at John Starling’s (well, he was there, where the party was… I think it was his place), looking forward to seeing him and the rest of Seldom Scene again, a group I had admired from a west coast afar perspective. I asked who the incredible girl singer was, and he said, ‘She’s Emmylou Harris.. love her voice. I think she’ll do well,’ to which I agreed. I had only heard someone sing that well a year earlier, and I introduced myself to her, making that comment. Emmylou said, ‘well, that was me last year, at a different place we were playing.’ My embarrassment was assuaged by her cordial acceptance of having me pick with her, and it was a great night. That led to sitting in with the Seldom Scene at the Red Fox (the early one with a big window behind the stage), and getting to pick with the great Ben Eldridge. We banjo guys were so ‘in to’ our double banjo on Dixie Hoedown or such that we drifted time-wise ahead of the band both musically and in ‘that space often found in a banjo player’s head,’ that the rest of the band stopped playing, with Starling saying to us ‘You guys going to play with us?’ in a jovial fashion causing us all to laugh. So…we did. 

Great singer, cordial host, wonderful songwriter, Mr. Starling was a known treasure of the DC music scene, and admired by all. I am one of those admirers and wish I could back him up one more time. We were all fortunate to have known him and his music.”

Cindy Baucom shares these fond memories, one that husband Terry remembers as well as that of her first meeting with  

“John Starling is one of those artists that Terry and I both respected greatly for his unique, smooth vocal style and stage presence. Terry met Starling in the 1970s. He recalls a festival, while on stage with Boone Creek, that members of the Seldom Scene came out beside the stage to watch their performance. He said it’s one of those times that really stands out in his mind – looking over and seeing John Starling and the others listening closely to their music. From that time on, he always enjoyed an opportunity to visit with John Starling.

I had wanted to meet him for a very long time. I listened to all the Seldom Scene albums, starting with Act 1… but it wasn’t until a gathering following the induction of the original Seldom Scene to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame that the opportunity came. John Starling was just as cordial and charming in person as I always imagined he would be. I am thankful I had the chance to chat with him and let him know how much his delivery of all those great songs he recorded had meant and been enjoyed by me and radio listeners I had shared them with. His voice was strong and soft at the same time… smooth and impactful. He will be missed.”

Dick Spottswood is one of the founding fathers of bluegrass music programming on Washington D.C. area’s Radio WAMU in 1967 ….

“John’s gift lay in the broader pop music sensibilities he brought to the Seldom Scene and its cosmopolitan Washington audiences. His tasteful, heartfelt crooning lent a new dimension to contemporary bluegrass songs and transformed the best of them into classics.”

Tom Gray was a co-founder of Seldom Scene and, with Starling, he was a member of the group that was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2014 …..

“John Starling was not a fast learner. He took his time in working out in his mind how he would sing a song. He planned just how he would sing every note, every syllable. How he would shape his throat, how he would bend a note. He wasn’t satisfied until he had ‘made it his own.’ He sounded so smooth because he had worked all the rough edges out. He was the same way learning his low tenor part in a trio under Duffey’s high lead. I once heard Starling try to talk shop with Charlie Waller about how to approach singing a song. Charlie avoided the conversation.”

Katy Daley worked on WAMU/Bluegrass Country radio/Internet broadcasts for over 35 years …. 

“John was an extraordinary singer. His talents as an arranger and producer were even greater than his voice. He made significant contributions to several genres — bluegrass, Americana and country rock. 

I also want to mention his great love of baseball. Take a look of the album cover of Spring Training, which he did in 1987 with Carl Jackson. He was an Indians fan.

He will be greatly missed.”

Randy Barrett, banjo player with his band Big Howdy, was President of the DC Bluegrass Union for 12 years ….. 

“John is one of my vocal heroes. He was a true baritone and could sing way up into the tenor range with ease in one breath, while slaying you with his signature soulful lower register the next. His phrasing was also distinctive and he paid attention to the ends of words. Starling never threw away a line — and that makes you listen more closely. 

A few years ago the DC Bluegrass Union held a Seldom Scene reunion at the old Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s an Italian restaurant now but we built in a stage and invited all the living Seldom Scene members. Starling was there along with Tom Gray. Emmylou Harris came too which was a real treat. They spent an hour in the back room running harmonies. Starling told me later that he loved practicing in those harmony huddles as much as performing, if not more. 

By the way, his son Jay called his dad the Forrest Gump of bluegrass. That’s true. John was a fabulous country singer that happened to land among the some of greatest bluegrass musicians of all time. 

We’re all the better for it.”

Darren Beachley’s recent involvement in music has been limited to song-writing mostly ….

“Growing up in the DC area I had many opportunities to see John with the Scene. As a kid the Scene and Country Gentlemen were my go-to bands, as they were always accessible. John’s voice had the great mix of emotional feel and blues matched with wonderful tone. The way he would milk a line with his draw on the words. The medical world was blessed to have had John, but bluegrass and country music will forever remember him as one of the greatest lead singers we have ever known.”

Phil Rosenthal, who replaced Starling with the Scene in 1977, valued his predecessor’s concerned interest in the role that he had assume ….  

“John was very supportive of me when I joined the Seldom Scene. He knew how hard it was for me to take his place – to suddenly be the lead singer in the favorite bluegrass band for a lot of people (including me!). He made a point, several times, of complimenting my lead guitar playing and song-writing, and mentioning they were things I added to the sound of the band. I didn’t see him much when I was in the Scene, but we talked occasionally, then and after I left the group. He was always happy to hear from me and interested in my latest musical projects. His singing and song-writing, and his ear for new material remain an inspiration for me.”

Penny Parsons, a Sugar Hill Records employee for about a decade, witnessed a few of the highlights in Starling’s musical career …..  

“I’m not sure when I first met John Starling, although I know it was sometime in the 1980s. I began working at Sugar Hill Records in early 1981. Starling’s first solo album, Long Time Gone, had recently been released, and was receiving rave reviews in some big-time national publications. The following year Starling recorded his second solo project, Waitin’ On a Southern Train. That is still one of my favorite albums from my eleven years at Sugar Hill. Starling had a knack for picking great songs. He always seemed to surround himself with great musicians and songwriters. His long friendship with writer Paul Craft resulted in some of the best bluegrass and country recordings of all time. And, of course, Starling wrote some fine songs himself. He was a skilful arranger, as well. He knew how to make music sound good.

One of John’s greatest accomplishments, in my opinion, was as co-producer (with the Birchmere’s Gary Oelze) of the Seldom Scene’s 15th Anniversary Celebration, which was recorded live at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 1986. I can remember dozens of phone conversations between Starling and Sugar Hill president Barry Poss in the months leading up to the concert. Starling played a major part in organizing the nearly twenty artists who participated in the show, choosing the material, deciding who would perform on each song, and arranging everything in a way that would make for an exciting, enjoyable, and memorable concert. I was extremely fortunate to be able to sit on the stage and observe the event as it unfolded. It was a huge undertaking, and it came off splendidly, thanks in part to Starling’s attention to detail.

Although John Starling never made a full-time career in music, it was clearly his passion. His heartfelt, breath-taking vocal performances made a powerful statement that transcended musical boundaries. It was a joy to see him on stage again in Raleigh for the Seldom Scene’s induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame in 2014. RIP, John Starling, and thanks for sharing your passion with us.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.