Suspicious Minds

Her name alone would suffice for the purposes of imposed romance. Garrison Starr. Garrison: such a patriarchal fortress of a title to signify a 20-year-old female. And Starr: connoting not only the apogee of fame, but weirder relations such as drummer Ringo and Civil War femme fatale Belle. But there's a story that not only accompanies singer/songwriter Garrison Starr's name, but surpasses it. Or rather, several stories, if her mythic little press release is to be believed. Born in Hernando, Miss., Starr learned guitar at camp (first song: "Blowin' in the Wind"). Then on to college at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where hometown novelist William Faulkner once made a character remark, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And, as if a strange name and Bob Dylan and three semesters in Yoknapatawpha County weren't enough weight on a young artist's shoulders, she quit Ole Miss (like Faulkner before her) and followed in the footsteps of a certain other migrating musical Mississippian, settling in Memphis in search of fame and fortune.

But first, she needs a job. So she gets one, answering phones at Ardent Studios, where one Alex Chilton recorded his finest songs with Big Star, where Big Star drummer Jody Stephens still works. So she probably spends her days scribbling while-you-were-out notes for the man who sang lead on "Way Out West" and her nights singing in the town that has heard more godlike singers than some towns twice its size have hosted fools. Where could an ambitious Mississippian go but down to the crossroads? Starr signed a contract with Geffen Records earlier this year. Her debut album is due in 1997, the centennial, by the way, of Faulkner's birth.

Starr could be one of next year's next big things, but this year, she's something rarer, the real thing. The modest, self-produced EP she's just released, Stupid Girl, doesn't quite live up to the dramatic implications of her biography (those are pretty big blue suede shoes to fill), but any of the eminent ghosts in her passway would recognize Starr's voice for what it is: sincere, forthright, and enchanting. Her spare record, harmonically traditional to the point of folksiness, echoes with the sound of someone sticking up for herself. In its quiet, acoustic corners, it calls to mind a line Starr's fellow 20-year-old Kaia Wilson sings on her recent album: "I'd like your respect, but I'd rather keep mine."

Starr's earthy "Rebel" evokes an almost Faulknerian passion for domestic architecture. She asks a trespasser-of-the-heart, "This is my house/ What are you looking for?" She sings those words at the front door the first time. The second time, she quivers as if she's holding onto a banister to keep from falling down. By the third and last time she utters the question, it's the last word. She puts her foot down, intent on standing her ground.

Despite the historical tension between Saturday night and Sunday morning all around her, Starr's songs have a Thursday afternoon sound, rife with ordinary, nagging questions. There's none of the devil's music in her simple melodies, but the blues are wafting through the air she breathes. If she doesn't sing them as a style, she's internalized their emotional intent. "Pauper," a song of "bitter toil, bitter gain," has a softness and a generosity, telling someone who she knows could use some rest, "You have ailments/ Sit in my chair." It's not soul, but it's soulful. And all the stories and mythologies and historical coincidences in the world can't fake that. Sometime Memphian Stanley Booth has written that under the influence of drink he once made the outrageous claim that "in this century, Memphis, Tennessee, has changed the lives of more people than any other city in the world." Listening to Garrison Starr come into her own, one suddenly realizes that the century still has a few more years to go.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

Stupid Girl by Garrison Starr is available from Quick and Clean, 3514 Robert St., New Orleans,

 
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