Star Room Boys - Bar lights and neon knights
All it takes is one idiot to ruin a show. And on this particular Saturday at New York City's Rodeo Bar, where the Star Room Boys are halfway through their set of raucous, crushing country music, the idiot in question, a New York punk who spent too much time on his goatee and too much money on his tiki shirt, is sitting at the table next to me trying to get laughs out of his frat brothers and his glammed-up girlfriend by yelling requests for Black Sabbath between songs.
Me, I'm ready to strangle him, but singer Dave Marr is unfazed. And like he's heard it all before, Marr looks back at the band, strums the first chords in a lazy 4/4, and in a voice that starts in the heels of his boots and echoes in emptiness where his heart used to be, he sings. The song -- "Gastonia", the lead track on the band's 1999 debut disc -- is about a lover chasing the woman who left him.
As the steel guitar swells and the rhythm section enters quietly, almost secretly, everything changes. A girl winds her way to the front, finding space among the tables and monitors, her boyfriend in tow, and just as Marr descends into the chorus, they start to dance. Chairs begin to shift, drinks settle on the bar, and it isn't long before everyone is focused on the stage and the slow-moving couple.
It's only when I notice the empty chairs at the next table that I realize the fella dancing with his girlfriend, eyes closed, arm snug in her lower back, lost in the song, is none other than the Sabbath fan. Even his clown friends have shut up.
The best country music has this kind of power -- the ability to move even the most recalcitrant New Yorker. Hell, a whole room of them. And it's what the Star Room Boys do best -- play sad, beautiful, personal music for people who know they have something to lose, or have already lost it.
That night in New York is now a year gone, and Dave Marr and I are drinking and talking at the bar of the Manhattan Cafe, an artists' hangout in the band's hometown of Athens, Georgia. Marr looks tired; we've been drinking for five or six hours at this point, so that's forgivable. His dark hair droops down across his eyes, and he's grown a rough beard since I last saw him, black and thick except for a spot of white the size of a Kennedy half-dollar on the left side of his chin.
The Star Room Boys -- singer-songwriter Marr, guitarist Phillip McArdle, bassist John McMahon, drummer Bob Fernandez and Johnny Neff on pedal steel -- play sophisticated honky-tonk with an indelible blue neon cool that finds the band its own spot on the shelf somewhere on the Tom Waits side of Willie Nelson. Their second album, This World Just Won't Leave You Alone, is due out in March on Slewfoot Records.
Their first, Why Do Lonely Men & Women Want To Break Each Others' Hearts?, covered the familiar territory of alcohol and lost loves, feeling modern and classic without any hint of retread. Ultimately, it's the sound of remembering -- the guy next to you at the bar recounting the names of lost friends, the old records, the mess he made...and when he reaches the end of his tale, raising his glass to them all and draining it.
If their debut was the bender, This World Just Won't Leave You Alone is the aftermath, picking up further down the spiral, when the broken hearts become broken souls and start to wonder how close they are to rock bottom. They don't remember how they got there, and they know they can't stop. Not now, not yet.
The album is not without its brighter moments. The opening track, "White Lies, Blue Tears", is a Mavericks-esque slice of pop, while "The Daydreamer," about a trucker with his mind on the curves, just not the road, is a rollicking trucker anthem.
Mostly, though, This World is a bleary-eyed, cold-sunrise kind of record, like a countrified version of Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours. The wandering subject of "Cocaine Parties" and the mournful freight train of "The 4:05" inhabit those empty street, pre-dawn moments when we assess where we are, and what we've wrought.
"The first album definitely came out of a period of several frustrating romantic episodes for me. But the stuff that's gone on in and around my life while I was writing this album has not been trouble with girls," says Marr, who is engaged to marry his girlfriend this summer.
"I think the best and most impacting songs on this record are more about things that we do to ourselves, rather than the things that other people do to us. You're never going to run out of ways to talk about people destroying their own lives. People will always think of new ways to do that, so there's a limitless reservoir of personal feeling and point of view."