CD Review: Starlett & Big John – Living in the South

I got a surprise reviewer’s copy CD in the mail from Rebel Records; “Starlett & Big John – Living in the South”. REB-CD-1876. I didn’t know who Starlett and Big John are, although I’ve heard their cut “Straight 58” on SiriusXM Bluegrass Junction a lot, and I liked it from the first time I heard it.

The promo sheet from Rebel says that Starlett Boswell and Big John Talley have been working together for 3 years. They are from southern Virginia, and have one earlier album. Big John has had a decades long pickin’ friendship with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and other “old timers” flowing from his work with the New Dominion Bluegrass band. From the CD liner photos, I see that Starlett and Big John aren’t kids in jeans with their shirt tails out…thank goodness.

This is a solid album of new bluegrass, in a contemporary traditional style. Fiddling Ronnie Stewart (lately of JD Crowe, the Boxcars, and the Seldom Scene) produced this very fine project, and provided his usual excellent fiddling and a little Dobro. Starlett sings (VERY well) and plays good bass fiddle. Big John plays a modern style of rhythm guitar with a few conservative lead breaks (not Tony Rice style, but not Clinch Mountain style either) and sings lead and harmony. David Carroll – banjo, and Johnathan Dillon – mandolin, guest to fill out the band, and they are TOP quality modern traditional pickers. Starlett and Big John contribute 6 original compositions. The remaining 8 are “covers” of older, lesser-known country and bluegrass songs.

Starlett’s voice is occasionally reminiscent of the Oklahoma powerhouse Delia Bell. Especially when she sings in a higher range and “belts” it out, which she can certainly do! On lower pitched, slower songs, she croons as softly as Alison Krauss. No vibrato, she sings it country style. Big John is an effective harmony singer, but he also leads a few cuts, with a soft Virginia accent.

None of the songs are “barn burning bluegrass”. Many are slow and thoughtful. The rest are “medium, with a bounce”. I call it easy listening bluegrass.

My favorites include “Straight 58” which they wrote based on a throwaway phrase Starlett uttered while driving from their Southampton VA studio west back home on Rt 58 which runs east/west along the Virginia – North Carolina border. Big John said “don’t get tired, drive safe!” and she replied “Yep, straight 58!” Instantly they agreed that could be the basis for a break-up song. Well written and beautifully executed by the band. Ronnie Stewart’s fine fiddling suggests the old tune “Cherokee Shuffle”. This cut also caught my ear because I had just read the new best-seller “Demon Copperhead”, which takes place along Rt 58 in mountainous far-southwestern Virginia – even beyond the Stanley Brothers’ Clinch Mountains.

I also really liked the old Jake Landers tune “Back Away Little Heart” which used to be a favorite performance piece of my old friends from Massachusetts, the Bear Bridge Band. This is one of the snappier cuts on this CD.

My other favorite is Starlett’s very fine singing on the old Connie Smith hit “Deepening Snow”, a real country tear-jerker, written by the great Harlan Howard.

Other songs include the old Hank Williams number “Setting the Woods on Fire”, Merle Haggard’s “Makeup and Faded Blue Jeans”(really bouncy), Damon Black’s “The Dirt That You Throw”, Paul Humphries’ (Paul Williams’) old song recorded by the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers “My Brown Eyed Darling”, and the gospel number “Safely in the Arms of Jesus”. Plus 5 other solid originals by Starlett and Big John.

Just coincidentally, this past week I heard on SiriusXM Willie’s Roadhouse channel, the 1970s Jerry Reed hit “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” and in the first line he sings about playing craps in the alley with “Homer Jones and Big John Talley”. I think I’m safe in saying we’re talking about two different Big John Talley’s here.

This CD is great listening, and a wonderful vehicle for Starlett’s fine voice. EVERYTHING is very well done. Completely professional, carefully rehearsed and recorded. I believe anyone who likes contemporary bluegrass would really like this music. The CD will be released to the street later this month. Try it out!

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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