John Starling, a surgeon who became a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and co-founded the Seldom Scene, a bluegrass group that in the 1970s helped define the expansive subgenre called “new grass,” died May 2 at his home in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 79.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, John “Jay” Starling Jr.
A punning inside joke, the name Seldom Scene alluded to the fact that all five members had day jobs and, initially, only committed to performing one night a week. Dr. Starling was an otolaryngologist, a surgeon who specializes in ear, nose and throat maladies.
Their repertoire included compositions by folk singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Bob Dylan and John Prine, placing them on the vanguard of the “new grass” movement.
“We played straight-ahead bluegrass, and it just didn’t sound right to us — at least not the way we were playing it,” Dr. Starling told the Columbus Dispatch in 1992. “But we never tried to be progressive necessarily. . . . The only thing we said at the outset was ‘Let’s not do ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Fox on the Run’ all night.’ The rest was playing what we liked in a way that felt right.”
Dr. Starling wrote several of the group’s best-remembered songs, including “He Rode All the Way to Texas,” “Gardens and Memories” and “C&O Canal.” The last poetically and atavistically recalled the waterway’s history through the eyes and ears of a locksman:
Hey, hey, hey — lock ready!
Oh, hey — hey, lock!
These words like the lock-house, covered in time
Live on for us in an old man’s mind
Never, no more, on the C&O Canal Line
“You had two incredibly distinct voices that you’d never think would go together: Duffey, one [of] the great classic bluegrass tenors, and John, who is one of the most subtle, soulful singers, almost like a pop voice,” singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, one of the band’s admirers, told The Washington Post in 2006.
“John is probably my favorite singer in the world as far as restraint, intensity of emotion,” she added. “Then you’ve got that cement of Mike’s voice, which has a beautiful tone to it but a certain invisible quality that ties it all together with just enough texture — it’s just like no other sound. They really gave bluegrass another texture, another gear.”
Dr. Starling often offered suggestions to Harris about her song arrangements and even harmonized on her records. On “Trio” (1987), a collaborative effort by Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, he is credited as music consultant.
Later, when doctors advised Harris to limit her singing after a bout with bronchitis, Dr. Starling, believing that acoustic music would decrease her vulnerability to voice strain, urged her to form a bluegrass group, the Nash Ramblers.
John Lewis Starling was born in Durham, N.C., on March 26, 1940, and grew up in Lexington, Va., where his father became a biology professor at Washington and Lee University. As a youngster, he discovered bluegrass and country through live radio programs. As a teenager, he took up electric guitar.
He graduated from Davidson College in 1962 and received his medical degree from the University of Virginia in 1967. While on campus, he attended folk and bluegrass jams and met future bandmate Eldridge.
After service as an Army surgeon in Vietnam, Dr. Starling performed in the Washington area with Eldridge and two founding members of the Country Gentlemen, Duffey and Gray. Over the years, the Seldom Scene took up residence at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Md., and then was a house band at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va.
His first marriage, to bluegrass singer Fayssoux Dunbar, ended in divorce. In 1976, he married Cynthia Burks. Survivors include his wife, of Fredericksburg, and son, of Charlottesville.
In 1977, Dr. Starling left the Seldom Scene and released a solo album “Long Time Gone” with guest appearances from Harris, Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and his former bandmates. With singer Claire Lynch, he formed a country rock band, Ready Section.
His recording “Spring Training” with banjoist/songwriter Carl Jackson and the Nash Ramblers won the 1991 Grammy for best bluegrass album. He briefly rejoined the Seldom Scene in the mid-1990s. After his retirement from medicine in 2006, he reunited with Auldridge and Gray as John Starling and Carolina Star for a final collaboration, “Slidin’ Home” (2007).
Dr. Starling took pride in what he termed “honesty in presentation” and considered it paramount to give an audience his best. “No matter how slick you are,” he once said, “people aren’t going to buy it if you’re checking your watch to see how long you have before you go off.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries