[20 June 2002]
The Star Room Boys hail from Athens, GA, buut their style is more akin to roadhouse honky tonk than anything you normally associate with the home of R.E.M. and the B-52s. There’s little irony or artsiness to the Star Room Boys; they sing of heartbreak to the sounds of pedal steel guitar, some chickin’-pickin’ guitar, and the occasional yodel.
They’re completely serious in what they do, and somehow pull off a vintage country sound without feeling dated. Bandleader Dave Marr has remarked that once he found country music, he wasn’t able to write anything else, and his expressive vocals definitely have the feel of someone who’s found home. The music on This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone doesn’t feel like a rehashing of what’s come before; it feels like a natural evolution.
Marr’s songwriting is short on poetics but long on economy, and it’s often startling how much implication he can cram into a few lines. “White Lies,Blue Tears” asks, “White lies, blue tears / Red eyes, black fears / Listen you, and listen close / Who’s your daddy love the most?” and the ambiguity hangs like a threat. The title track laments, “Somebody told me the light / Could show you the way / But the way is long”. “I’ll Play Angel” offers up this late night scene: “And did you know that I’ve been sober for nine days? / So I didn’t think you’d mind me coming around / And I remember Willie Nelson made you cry / And it’s late and all the bars are closed downtown”.
Marr’s songs strike a curious mixture of wide-eyed hope and worldliness of the most jaded sort, but most of them find people on the verge of total collapse. In “When I’m All the Way Down”, he asks, “Won’t you please be expecting my call?” before adding “and the way things have been happening to me lately / It might not be too long”. In “Whiskey and You”, a lover is told, “When the bottle runs empty / I’ll be back feeling blue / But whiskey’s still winning between whiskey and you”. Marr’s songs are not populated by happy people; he writes about lives that love has scarred too heavily or too often.
Behind it all, Marr’s bandmates supply inspired, uncluttered backing. The trucker’s anthem “Daydreamer” barrels along as one of the disc’s few up-tempo moments, but doesn’t crash and burn like it would if most bands were finally given a chance to cut loose. No, this band seems comfortable loping and shuffling behind Marr, painting musical portraits of barroom walls and lonely bedrooms behind his tales of woe. Johnny Neff’s pedal steel guitar is especially impressive. In his hands, one of the most over-used and abused instruments in modern country music underscores Marr’s lyrics with sympathy and understatement.
Even with all that obvious skill and excellence taken into account, though, This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone takes a while to get its hooks into you. Much of it can ease by you if you’re not paying attention, or not in the right mood. Perhaps that’s one of the dangers of making a record that’s best suited for a darkened room where the only competing sound comes from the ice in your whiskey glass. Listened to with enough attention or in the right setting, though, the Star Room Boys will make you feel like they’ve lived every one of your heartbreaks and a few hundred more.