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Mountain Mohawks

Ex-punkers of Starlings, TN space out with dulcimers and other American originals

Nashville's Villager Tavern is a place where the locals go in a tourist town. It's an oasis of laid-back beer-joint grit in the rapidly, to coin a tongue-twisting word, trendrifying Hillsboro Village district. It's also been the birthplace of many bands, most recently Starlings, TN, an odd space-pop/old-timey bluegrass trio whom the Nashville Scene has described as "Skip Spence and the Soggy Bottom Boys hitting a bong the size of a Hoover vacuum cleaner and then wrapping their impaired senses around the weirdest, saddest songs Paul Westerberg never showed anyone…"

But back to the pub where they were born. As sure as the Villager's doors open every day at 4 p.m., David Schnaufer -- the nontouring "fourth Starling, TN" and the creative inspiration behind the group's very existence -- will take his place at the bar shortly thereafter.

Schnaufer is the La Marque native who has come to be called the "Eric Clapton of the dulcimer." Cyndi Lauper, Chet Atkins, Albert Lee, Mark O'Connor and Mark Knopfler have appeared on his albums. He was one of a handful of people to have co-written a tune ("Waltz of the Waters") with Townes Van Zandt, who once told this writer that Schnaufer rivaled Roky Erikson "as a purely musical guy."

The Starlings, TN at their Nashville roost.
The Starlings, TN at their Nashville roost.
David Schnaufer, the man who took the dulcimer out of the closet.
David Schnaufer, the man who took the dulcimer out of the closet.

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He's also a teacher and champion, both literally and figuratively, of the little Appalachian-born stringed instrument most people confuse with its hammered nonrelative. (He's won the national championship.) Tracy Hackney of Bare Jr. is one of his star pupils. So are the Starlings, TN (pronounced "Starlings, Tennessee").

"He's our hero," Starlings electric dulcimer player Timmy "The Tim" Bryan states flatly. Bryan, like the other two everyday Starlings, had probably never seen a dulcimer until he came to Nashville. Both he and bandmate Steve "Senatobia" Stubblefield are vets of the vibrant but underpraised north Louisiana indie/ punk/roots underground that gave the world the indie-god musical collective Elephant 6 (Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel) and lunatic rootsy acts like the Gourds and the Damnations TX, for whom the Starlings will open on this "T is for TX, T is for TN" show.

Fitz's vets may remember Stubble- field from the Roadside Monuments and Bryan from the Habitual Sex Offenders. Third member and late addition TJ Larkin comes from Connecticut via Athens, Georgia, where he played in the band Pop Cycle.

Stubblefield has said that the area around Shreveport and Bryan's nearby hometown of Ruston "could've been the next Seattle" if anyone was looking for one. Instead, according to Bryan, the major labels are only fishing for the next SRV when they cast about in north Louisiana's waters. "All you ever hear about from Shreveport is Kenny Wayne Shepherd," says Bryan. "Big deal. If I want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan, I'll listen to Stevie Ray, not Kenny Wayne Shepherd."

After getting to know Schnaufer little by little over beers in the Villager, Bryan and Stubblefield pledged to take dulcimer lessons. "Every Friday afternoon, we'd go over to Schnaufer's apartment and just pick for a couple of hours. Then we'd go to the Villager and talk about our lesson. That was our homework."

Evidently the students were fairly diligent; their soon-to-be-released (January 8) debut CD, The Leaper's Fork, includes one of these lessons taped directly onto four-track. The home recording of the mountain standard "Whiskey Before Breakfast" is one of the highlights of this haunting disc, with Schnaufer leading the troops through some fast-paced dulcimer and guitar drills while Bryan's Daniel Lanois-ish bowed dulcimer provides a spacey backdrop. It's one of five Starling-ized mountain traditionals on the CD, which accompany eight more tunes by Stubblefield and a Schnaufer-Herb McCullough co-write, "Sarah," which was recorded by Toni Price on her Sol Power disc. Somehow the Appalachian-based music heads straight up the mountains and then off into space.

"We all started off in rock bands," says Larkin, who handles bouzouki, mandolin and miscellaneous string duties. "And now we're sitting around with dulcimers and bouzoukis. But we still approach our recording with the same mentality we always had, so the end product ends up pretty neat."

Asked about the apparent dissimilarity between playing music from the hills and hollers of ol' Kentucky and that of punk's tidy though disaffected small towns and suburbia, Bryan insists that the divide is smaller than one might think. "It's really not that different, but now I can play a whole lot better than I used to. You have to be able to," he says. "But the music is really, really similar, right down to the structure of the songs. It can be repetitious, therefore you have to mix it up. What we do is mess with the dynamics of the song, which is untraditional."

And so is their attitude. They don't want a major-label deal should one come knocking. They're polite to a fault. (Bryan actually asked this writer how his day was going and, told that he was the first musician to be so kind, apologized for his colleagues.) Neither are they wasting time between albums. "We can't keep up with ourselves," says Larkin, who promises that the second album, as yet untitled, will be a better example of whatever space/indie/ dream/pop/hoedown it is that this band throws down. "That first was really us just finding our feet. With this next one, we're really off and running. We're really closing in on something. What it is, I have no idea, but it's definitely something."

 
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