“Being a country boy is engrained in my memory,” says Steven Stubblefield of Austin-based foursome Starlings, TN (pronounced Starlings, Tennessee.) “The history and lore surrounding traditional music made an early impression, and it has stuck with me all my life.”
It doesn’t get much more traditional than the music on the new Starlings, TN album Preachin’ To The Choir, arriving via Chicken Ranch Records on January 27th, 2015. The record is comprised of covers of gospel songs that Stubblefield grew up with, along with a handful of like-minded originals written from his unique perspective.
“I didn’t realize until recently just how close ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was to my real life,” Stubblefield says, recounting his upbringing. Born in a tobacco farming community outside of Louisville, at three-years-old the family moved to Magnolia, Arkansas, the town where his mother grew up. Stubblefield’s father became the pastor at the Southern Baptist church in Magnolia, and his grandparents on his mother’s side lived down the street, after having spent time residing in the local jail.
“My mother actually lived in a jail cell for about a year while she was in high school,” Stubblefield explains. “Papaw was the sheriff of Columbia County at the time, and part of his compensation was housing, which happened to be a ground floor of the two-story jail. So, they sold their house and moved in.”
With close ties to these two seemingly dissimilar worlds, it’s no wonder that Stubblefield would find a life in music through his relationship with the church.
“It was because of the gospel that I heard growing up that I first found my passion for music,” he recalls. “I sang in the choir as far back as I can remember, and that continued all the way through high school.”
While the traditional songs on Preachin’ To The Choir have their roots in musical history, Stubblefield’s approach to the recordings was inspired by his distaste for modern “praise music,” as he refers to it. “I find it soulless and repetitious,” he says of modern gospel songs. So Stubblefield set out to do the music justice in his own way.
“The first two Starlings, TN records had a couple traditional gospel songs included on them, so when I brought the idea of doing an entire record of gospel songs to the guys in 2012, they weren’t surprised, and actually seemed eager to take on the project.”
Ultimately, the new record is not only a tribute to Stubblefield’s childhood, but also a return to his roots. Where the most recent Starlings, TN record (2013’s All The Good Times) was on a mission to “inject Spiritualized’s space rock into traditional bluegrass,” according to the Austin Chronicle, Preachin’ To The Choir really takes Stubblefield back.
“In 1999, I purchased my first dulcimer and started taking lessons from David Schnaufer,” Stubblefield remembers. The late Schnaufer, famed dulcimer player and instructor (Cyndi Lauper was a student), was widely credited with restoring the cultural popularity of the instrument. “Some of those earliest songs we learned were the old time gospel songs,” Stubblefield says.
Why then, as an album that is mostly comprised of traditional songs that the band leader grew up with, did Stubblefield take nearly three years to complete it? Perhaps being so close to the material wasn’t as much of an advantage as it seems.
“It was a pretty simple process in the beginning,” Stubblefield explains. “But once I started the mixing process, the love-hate relationship began. The frustration overwhelmed me to the point I had to put it up and not look at it, but there it was in the back of my mind, haunting me the whole time.” Stubblefield finally found the strength to open the folder simply labeled “preachin’” in the spring of 2014. From there, it only took a week for Preachin’ To The Choir to be completed.
“‘Preachin’ to the choir’ is a saying I’ve heard my whole life,” Stubblefield explains of the album’s title. “Someone who isn’t privy to Southern colloquialisms might not know it’s just a way of saying, ‘You’re telling me something I already know.’”
Continuing, Stubblefield wants to dispel any preconceived notions listeners may have about a gospel record. “As a band we did not make this record to preach to anyone,” he says. “We are represented by a couple of different faiths and we respect every person’s right to worship or not. We made this record because we love the music. We love the songs.”
Preachin’ To The Choir by Starlings, TN arrives on January 27th, 2015. “I’m A Sinner,” a Steven Stubblefield original that serves as the album’s first single, is streaming now. “I tried to come at this song in the same way that John Lennon approached ‘Nowhere Man,’ where he asks, ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me?’ ‘I’m A Sinner’ is everyman.”
Preachin’ To The Choir
(Chicken Ranch Records)
01. I Saw the Light (Hank Williams)
02. Are You Washed In the Blood (Elisha A Hoffman)
03. Amazing Grace (William Walker and John Newton)
04. I’m a Sinner (Stubblefield)
05. The Waiting Father (Stubblefield)
06. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Ada R Habershon and Charles H Gabriel)
07. I’ll Fly Away (Albert E Brumley)
08. It Is Well (With My Soul) (Philip Bliss and Haratio Spafford)
09. Wade In the Water (Traditional)
10. Angel Band (William Bradbury and Jefferson Hascall)