Interview: David Starr on Music vs. Sports, New Album and New Community Awakenings

Interviews

When Americana Highways caught up with singer songwriter who recently toured with John Oates, David Starr, he was in Arkansas. I noted his early gig times, and we both discussed the fact that many gigs start so late it’s prohibitive for anyone to attend who has either kids or any kind of day job that starts early. “I’ve produced shows for years out in Colorado, so we often start at 7, because of the general age of the community. We try to finish around 9:30. It’s been a good model to draw more of the community in.”

David Starr recorded his recent album, South and West at Addiction Sound Studios in Nashville, although he lives in Cedaredge, Colorado. [For more about that album click any of these bolded words right here.] He wound up in Nashville by a rather serendipitous route. He says, “[The producer] Mark Wright and I grew up together in Northwest Arkansas and he settled in Nashville, several years ago I went down there are we recorded some demos together that turned into my first Nashville record, and I have continued to makes trips there and meet other musicians there, like John Oates.”

“When I did some touring with John Oates and then went to do the album with him producing it, a year and a half ago, he wanted to use Addiction Studios, which is owned by Jonathan Cain, the keyboardist from Journey. David Kalmusky is the head engineer there and he built it with Jonathan, so we worked with him. It’s such a nice facility so when it came time to do the solo album, even though John Oates wasn’t producing this one, it felt familiar to return to that studio. I own a small condo in Nashville so now I have a base of operations there; I keep some guitars there and when I get there I can just go right to work.”

He added, “All the guys on the album I’ve worked before. We spent two full days in the studio, which is rare these days when everybody can email and send the files back and forth. But there’s a chemistry to having everybody together.”

“The album title South and West is based on the idea that although I have spent the bulk of my time in Colorado, I also had written a couple songs with people out in California, and I was also trying to address the fact that I spend a lot of time in Nashville, and I’m from Arkansas originally, so. It was funny because I didn’t think any of the song titles made a good album title. The cover was done by my friend Linda Marks. She is the wife of Dana Cooper, who’s a great songwriter. We went back and forth a lot but she did a great job capturing that in a picture.”

We got to talking about the Arkansas Americana music scene. Starr sketched out a picture of musicians hidden in the nooks and crannies of that state, and maybe every state. “When I was growing up in Fayetteville Arkansas there was a band called the Cate brothers http://theband.hiof.no/band_members/cate_brothers.html .  These twin brothers had been playing in the northwestern Arkansas area, and part of that band was Levon Helm’s nephew, Terry.  So Levon hung out up there, Ronnie Hawkins hung out up there, and there was a musically rich group of folks in that part of the state, and then Little Rock also had great musicians, and by the way  many states have similar histories, and you just don’t know unless you’ve been there. But the Cates were the ones who were doing original stuff, and setting a good example for me growing up.”

“My music falls in an interesting place, again which I tried to bring out in the album South and West.  I grew up when Poco, and the Eagles and Flying Burrito Brothers were coming out of Southern California, and that stuff really spoke to me not only in terms of the songwriting but in terms of the singing. I’m a big fan of good singing. That’s why I wasn’t a big Dylan fan early on even though the songs are good because he’s not known for his singing voice, even though it’s very distinctive. He’s a songwriter more than he is a singer. But I was drawn to Jackson Browne and Don Henley and Glenn Frey and guys who really sang well and wrote good songs, and they represent South and West also.”

“Once you’ve been out there in the cool mountain air it’s hard to be anywhere else. As soon as the time was right, I began to look for property out there, and found a place in a beautiful little town called Cedaredge. And now I have a guitar shop there (Starr’s Guitars: https://www.starrsguitars.com/ ) and we just finished building a performance space there too. I’ve promoted shows there for years and I’ve done something no one had really done there before, which was to bring John Oates, and John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dana Cooper and other people and people in town would just sit and listen and it worked.”

Starr has recently worked to co-found the brand new Grand Mesa Arts Center: https://www.grandmesaartscenter.com/.   When I wondered about how an arts performance space took hold in such a small community, Starr said: “There are so many talented people, really all over the country, maybe all that people need is for someone to say “yes, we can actually do this.” I got together with my wife and some folks in town and we simply committed to creating a space where there can be concerts and dance and theatre and gallery space and teaching rooms for teaching kids’ classes. We started working on it in November and just opened a couple weeks ago; it’s kid of hard to believe it all happened that fast.”

People seem worried, legitimately so, about big companies like Spotify, taking over artists’ rights to their own music, and yet it seems that Starr has been applying a glass half full approach to this, supporting the local growth of music support, and it’s been working. “I’ve chosen to look at it this way: 35 years ago you couldn’t make a record unless you had a record deal. So that could only happen for a very limited universe of people. But now, anybody can make a record and some are better than others but I choose to think I can make a pretty good record if I’m careful and people can buy it, and I can go out and promote it and I don’t need a big record company. On the other side of it, Spotify doesn’t pay much, airplay doesn’t play much.”

But live music can still be supported with new rooms like the one Starr built. “The room that we built holds 175 people, and we can’t support having it open every night but we can support a few shows a month, and rent it out in between, and it’s starting to take hold, and pretty soon you’ve got an arts scene, not just a music scene.”

“In the guitar shop we have guitar lessons, the arts center will host both children’s and adult classes in painting and the arts but we’ll also do some songwriting workshops there. Some of these artists I hire, could have a Saturday afternoon songwriting workshop and then the show that night. We want to inspire people as well as entertain them. Kids and young people are the next generation of songwriters. This is really important because this is what makes society civilized, and we’re not very civilized these days, I don’t think. We could use more civility.   We built this thing but it’s not for me, it’s not for us, it’s for that next generation of people we’re here to foster.”

“Arts and music play an important role in society, which is to remind us of our creativity and our humanity. If you look at a lot of great leaders throughout history, they weren’t just good politicians, they were writers and thinkers and architects, and creative people. Creativity of any kind is a good thing, and it makes your brain work. I see too many kids staring at iPhones and iPads, and while I think there’s a place for that too, I think piano lessons is a far better use of their time.”

“Music is a culturally significant shared experience. Sports does that too but it’s different. Our capacity to engage with music and the arts is badly in need of support. When we opened the arts space, the first few nights were sold out, and it hit me that we had created something that simply wasn’t there 6 months ago, and then two nights in a row 175 people came, and they came together and shared an experience. It was an awakening, and people kept telling me they had ‘seen what’s possible.’ We hope the arts can achieve even a proportion of the support that sports get in our society. There are so many rewards to come from the arts of all kinds.”

David Starr is already working on another project with John Oates as producer, which is completely different, and based on a book Starr’s grandfather wrote 40 years ago. Check out David Starr’s next project and tour dates, here.   https://www.davidstarrmusic.com/

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