Sunday, September 23, 2012

Andy Starr - Rockin' Rollin' Stone

“I don’t want to hear none of your tales, boy… Too many tales come from these mountains and everwhere…”*

The Ozark Mountains breed many legends. In the foggy hollers there, tales abound of witches, of the impending revolt of the Nini indians, and of a chicken-legged man-monster known as the Yarp. Yet another to have once roamed those hills was rockabilly legend Frank “Andy” Starr, the Rockin’ Rollin’ Jumpin’ Crazy Stone.

Born into abject poverty, named after a U.S. president, Franklin Delano Gulledge (b. 1932) grew up in a dirt shack near Mill Creek, “about six mile from Combs, Arkansas.” His mother struggled to feed the brood bestowed upon her by her rounder husband. The elder Gulledge, Grover Cleveland by name (yes, such naming was a family tradition), came and went according to the movements of an itinerant hustler. He was rarely present in the home. To help out around the dirt farm, sister Drew sold the Cloverleaf Salve that arrived by mail order. She sold so much, in fact, that she won a prize: a cheap guitar. The siblings all shared that guitar, beating and bashing it in the hillbilly fashion, but young Frank took a true shine to it. Blowing thru Mill Creek again around that time, G.C., a fiddle player himself, heard his middle son strumming on that mail order guitar. Father encouraged son to “tag along in the Key of D.” He liked what he heard and began to take his son with him to play the local dances held in cabins around the hills. 

(Continued, with song files, after the jump.)

“…and now, getting on dark, the mountains I feel they live and squeeze in on you…”

As he grew, he who would become Andy Starr began to get wise to the dead-end life dealt by poverty. He got a gun. He hit the road. He worked and hobo’d and played that mail-order guitar.

War broke out in KO-rea just when Starr'd reached perfect commie killin’ age. To an army recruiter he said “Well, I’ll tell you. You give me a gun and show me who you want me to shoot, and I’ll shoot him.” The U.S. Army can always use a man like that, and they packed Starr off straightaway to the DMZ. At that time, Starr wanted to fight, and not play music. But the army heard him play that guitar, and encouraged him to entertain the troops with it. The good soldier followed his orders and assembled a hillbilly combo called The Arkansas Plowboys.

War ended, and, like many vets, Starr returned home and married a hot li'l number. Wives would come. Wives would go. Sherry Davis was but his first. And yet, as Starr said, "There is something about your first wife that is very special."

Meanwhile, The Arkansas Plowboys plowed onward. They worked in California, with Starr’s brothers joining the band. They rambled back and forth from L.A. to Texas, playing dates, seeking recording deals. The brothers soon bailed, but the Rockin’ Rollin’  Stone kept at it. Eventually Starr landed spot on radio station KDSX in Dennison, TX. Nights he played over on the other side of the Red River, in the rowdy, ramshackle honky tonks along a stretch of highway then called the Oklahoma Strip.

Around this time, the KDSX Station Manager tipped Starr to the news that businessman Joe Leonard, of Gainesville, TX, was launching his Lin Record Co. and needed talent for its roster. In 1955 Starr released his first single "Dig Them Squeaky Shoes" for the Lin label. The record was credited to “Andy Starr.” The modest success of his early Lin sides earned Starr a spot on Opry package shows, sharing billing with the likes of Grandpa Jones, Porter Wagoner, and others. But, like many during that mid-50’s era,  Andy Starr had a different, new sound, a rougher, rowdier sound--who knows what those nights on the Oklahoma Strip had wrought? Hillbilly disc jockey Carl “The Squeakin’ Deacon” Moore described Starr thus: "You've heard of Elvis the Pelvis, now meet Andy the Dandy."

1956 was the big year for Andy Starr. Just as he hit his Rockin’ Rollin’ peak, Joe Leonard began leasing his recordings to MGM, a major label that, like all the majors at that time, actively sought their own answer to Elvis. For MGM, Starr cut roughly a half-dozen bursts of rockabilly perfection. First of these was “Rockin’Rollin’ Stone” b/w “I Wanna Go South,” followed by “She’s Goin’ Jessie” b/w “OldDeacon Jones,” and that ultimate, steam-rollin’, pent-up and pantin’ twin-spin “Round& Round” b/w “Give Me a Woman.”

“He was known to come to a dance out of nowhere and negotiate his fiddle to warp women & girls.”

Success with MGM brought notoriety, Opry dates, write-ups in Country Song Round-Up, and, if not monetary wealth, then wealth of another kind. “The young ladies were coming along by the droves,” Starr would later recount. “And I began to date these young ladies. I started out dating a different one every night and that’s the way I liked it.”

Let those last words resonate for a moment, dear reader. “And that’s the way I liked it.” We might as well end our story right here, for the phrase contains the essence of it all, summed up like an ad in a comic book: "That’s right lads, follow Andy Starr’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Blueprint for Success: Play guitar, Make records, Meet & Feast upon women." That credo quickly became the tired cliché driving thousands of extended guitar solos, but Andy Starr was one of its early pioneers. And while his story contains subsequent chapters--Franklin Delano Starr would himself one day run for president--we care little about them.  

*Quotes in italics taken from "Evening of the Yarp," a short story by Barry Hannah, from the collection Bats Out of Hell (Grove, 1993).  

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