A songwriter's story of the birth of a song
In this, our sophomore edition of Muse Unveiled, David Starr—northwest Arkansas native turned southwest Colorado-based singer-songwriter, businessman, and troubadour—tells us how his grandfather’s book, Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, came to be the catalyst and inspiration for Beauty & Ruin, Starr’s latest album. Produced and arranged by John Oates, who joins Jim Lauderdale and others as songwriters, collaborators and performers on the album.
So pull up a comfortable chair, pour a cup of tea, and settle in for tales of beauty and ruin in literature, life, and song.
David Starr: Beauty & Ruin
Photos courtesy of David Starr
Road to Jubilee shoot | L to R: Jim Lauderdale, David Starr, John Oates
Wish Upon a Starr
My grandfather, Fred Starr, was an author and newspaper columnist when I was growing up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was also an educator, legislator and family man. But to me, he was just my grandfather who spent time with me—teaching me to care for and ride Shetland ponies and to appreciate the nature around me. To be honest, I never read his work because I was too busy being a kid. He passed away in 1973 and I was pallbearer for the first time in my life.
Just a few years ago, I read his final novel Of What Was, Nothing Is Left. I was struck by the imagery and dramatic depiction of a family’s difficult life in late 1800s southwest Arkansas.
I immediately began to think of how the whole tale might inform my songwriting.
The story grabbed my imagination and I immediately began to think of how the whole tale might inform my songwriting. The vivid landscapes and the people portrayed in the book gave me an idea: What if I enlisted a group of songwriters to work on a project with me inspired by my grandfather’s fictional account of family dysfunction, grief and heartache? After all, that’s the stuff of many a song!
L to R: John Oates, Dana Cooper, David Starr, Erik Stucky; SECOND ROW: Mark Prentice, Matt Bubel, John Prentice
What a Concept
I had worked with my friend John Oates of Hall and Oates fame. He and I played some dates together, and produced my 2017 EP The Head And Heart. I approached him about the idea of a concept album based on the book. He loved the prospect of making such a record. Since the book was long out of print, I rounded up a few copies from Amazon and other used book sites and gave him one. He read it and was immediately onboard as producer and songwriter.
The next step was to enlist some other songwriters for the venture. The basic “assignment” for the writers was to develop songs inspired by the people, places and emotions in the book. No real rules other than that.
L to R: Irene Kelley, Jim Lauderdale, David Starr, John Oates
The Gift of Inspiration
The resulting album is Beauty & Ruin and it features 11 songs written with or by Dana Cooper, John Oates, Irene Kelley, Doug and Telisha Williams, Shelley Rae Korntved, Jim Lauderdale and myself. Some songs came to the project very directly from the book’s pages, while others found their way in through outside circumstances. For me, the collaboration and exploration that occurred were very rewarding!
Some songs came to the project very directly from the book’s pages.
As part of the big picture, we re-published the book and released a CD and vinyl LP. COVID-19 came along just as the project was released in February of 2020, but I hope to pick up where we left off as soon as possible with a live show that includes the music, the stories that inspired it, and an occasional reading from the book itself.
For my part, I’m grateful for the gift my grandfather left me: The gift of inspiration!
Photo by Dana Cooper | Design by Linda Marks
Beauty & Ruin [title song]
David Starr and Dana Cooper
I’ve written with Dana Cooper on a couple of occasions. He’s one of my good friends and a true inspiration as a troubadour and songwriter. He agreed to work on the project inspired by my late grandfather’s book, but we didn’t have a direction or a title for some time.
One day, I was reading Dana’s Facebook post online and noticed he’d posted a photo of some old rustic buildings and doorways from somewhere on his New Mexico tour travels. His caption read “So much beauty and ruin out here.” Bingo! I immediately texted him and suggested that would be our title.
The arc of the tragic story my grandfather wrote seemed to be summed up in the phrase Dana had written. The beauty of Laura and the landscape, as well as the ruin brought upon the family by her actions.
The song itself is a tale of lost love and regret and soon rose to the surface as the title cut for the album.
Road to Jubilee video still | Photo credit: Jason Denton | L to R: John Oates, David Starr, Jim Lauderdale
Rise Up Again
David Starr and John Oates
“Rise Up Again” is a classic case of a song finding its way into the project rather than being pulled from the pages of the book.
About halfway through the recording of the record, I became very ill and had to have emergency intestinal surgery. While in the hospital, I had a very vivid dream where I was visited by my late father and grandfather. The imagery was quite amazing and left me wondering what it might mean. As I recuperated at home, it became clear to me that their message to me was that it wasn’t my time to join them just yet. It only made sense to write it all down while it was fresh in my memory bank. Chords and a melody followed, and I had what felt like a song.
I sent the “bones” of the song to John Oates for his thoughts. He did some skilled arranging and reworked the lyrical arc a bit to give the song a more forward-looking feel. We included some images and references from the book as well; the original story relies heavily on the natural process of death and grief to weave its tragic tale.
In the time since the release of the record and song, I’ve had a number of people tell me that it feels anthemic to them. And in these strange times, I’ll take that all day long!
“Road to Jubilee” written and performed by David Starr, John Oates and Jim Lauderdale
David Starr's reach extends beyond the stage. He launched Starr's Guitars in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1998 and relocated it to Cedaredge, Colorado, in 2001 where it remains a centerpiece of the small mountain town—as is David himself. David was instrumental in the 2018 opening of Grand Mesa Arts Center and helped design it to attract musicians and visual artists to southwestern Colorado.
David says the Beauty and Ruin project is important to him for many reasons—the family connection via his grandfather and the collaborative nature of it as a whole.
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