It had always been a private thing for me,” says Starlings, TN leader Steven Stubblefield says of his songwriting process. “I haven’t collaborated since high school, but the desire to be better has pushed me to.”
It’s been a long time since those days for Stubblefield who emerged from a punk rock background to found Starlings, TN (pronounced Starlings, Tennessee) in 2001 with current band member Tim Bryan, and David Schnaufer, famed dulcimer player and instructor (Cyndi Lauper was a student), who was widely credited with restoring the popularity of the instrument that helped anchor the group’s sound.
According to Bryan, Schnaufer, who passed in 2006, used to say “whoever shows up and plays is a Starling, and whoever listens is visiting Starlings, Tennessee. I know he would love this new album and lineup.” It’s a reassuring thought considering the shake-up in the usual way Starlings, TN does things that came with the making of the band’s new album, its most succinct and upbeat recording to date.
For the upcoming Starlings, TN release All The Good Times, the band’s seventh full-length, arriving November 12th via Austin’s Chicken Ranch Records label, Stubblefield shares writing duties with bassist Mitchell Vandenburg, as well as longtime friend, Birdie Benjamin. Vandenburg previously appeared on 2012’s Starlings, TN album Heartache In 4/4 Time on which the three were also joined by Bryan Robison on guitar, rounding out the group. “Bryan (Robison) and I have been friends for 20 years,” says (Tim) Bryan, so I’m glad we’re finally playing together. We should have done it sooner!”
In addition to the collaborative nature of its tunes, All The Good Times represents a revolution in Stubblefield’s writing perspective, with more observational, narrative songs as opposed to the cathartic exercises that he was used to relying on. “I have often used my writing as a survival tool,” he says. “For now, those days are behind me.”
Further owing to the new atmosphere of teamwork at camp Starlings, TN, Stubblefield also gave up the engineering reigns to Justin Douglas of Austin’s Shine Studios who the band met after recording a promotional two-song session with him for Converse shoes at South By Southwest in 2013. Stubblefield wanted to capture a certain sonic tone on this new batch of songs, which for the first time have a 50’s and early 60’s-era rock n’ roll sound mixed with Starlings, TN’s traditional roots and country underpinnings. When the calendar wouldn’t allow him to book sessions at Sun Studios in Memphis to get what he wanted, Stubblefield turned to Douglas.
Robison was looking for some sounds, too. “I’ve spent a lot of time honing my guitar sound over the years,” he says. “A former bandmate called it ‘climbing tone mountain,’ and Justin did an amazing job capturing it.” Vandenburg notes other talents, joking, “It was a real pleasure getting to work with Justin because he has great taste in pizza,” before adding seriously, “He approaches songs like a surgeon. He’s meticulous, whereas the usual Starlings, TN approach is more like falling down a flight of stairs.”
Despite Douglas respectfully stealing a bit of the veteran player’s shine, even Bryan has praise for him. “I thought I was gonna get a solo, but Justin ended up playing it,” he explains. “But, after hearing what he composed, I packed up. It was perfect!” “Justin was a great coach and the knowledge I received is immeasurable,” Stubblefield says summing up the experience of working with an outside engineer for the first time. “When I finished the vocal tracks for our cover of ‘Shake Rattle and Roll,’ he turned to me and said, ‘Dude, you sounded just like Howlin’ Wolf.’ I’ve never regarded my singing as a strong point, and that compliment blew me away.”
Other tracks on All The Good Times include “Good Time Gal” in which Stubblefield imagines himself a Charlie Patton-era musician with women, drink, and a good time in every town. There’s the sentimental and personal “Back To Magnolia,” about which Stubblefield states, “I moved there when I was three and my father baptized my brother and I in the same baptistery my mother was baptized in.”
The Starlings, TN version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” included on the record also holds deep meaning for Stubblefield that resonates in the recording. “This was the last song I learned as a student of David Schnaufer,” he explains. “He told me to have fun with it. I’ve played it solo for years and once Bryan, Mitch, and Tim came into the mix, I knew we needed to record it.”
The album’s first single is “Burnt Ends,” which for any Texan, doesn’t really need much explanation. “It’s what I like most about Texas barbeque!” Stubblefield exclaims, saying exactly what we’re already thinking. The album wraps with a new version of the Starlings, TN tune “Hey Little Birdie” which originally appeared on the band’s first album, The Leaper’s Fork, released in 2002. This version is only available with the digital download of All The Good Times.
“I know it’s not the typical Starlings, TN sound, but this isn’t your typical Starlings, TN record,” Robison says of his fuzzy, Pete Townsend-influenced guitar contribution to the song “All The Good Times Are Now,” the tune that gives the album its title. Although Starlings, TN has no drummer in its ranks, musician Cade Callahan laid down a drum track on the song powerful enough for Vandenburg to declare that it “will never be as fun to play as it is playing it with him.”
Legendary blues musician Ray Bonneville also makes an appearance, belting out a virtuoso harmonica performance on the track entitled “The Thompson Boys,” which he heard for the first time during the take that made the record. “He walked into the booth, grabbed a harp, closed his eyes, and bam,” remembers Vandenburg.
Overall, All The Good Times is more of a family affair than any Starlings, TN album to date. “I couldn’t pick a better group of musicians or friends to join in this endeavor,” concludes Bryan. “We have grown together musically and personally. Indeed, all the good times are now.”
Vandenburg agrees, saying, “We built this album together from the ground up. Each one of us lent a collaborative ear to each song and in doing so built every one as a Starling rather than an individual. The product is this album, a very good album, and one that I’m proud of. It’s an album that is greater than the sum of all parts, because we built it as a band.”