No tears in his beer

It’s one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, but Dave Marr, front man of the seriously country, heavy-on-the-pedal-steel Athens band the Star Room Boys — answers the phone as if it’s 7 a.m.

And it must be confessed — his is exactly the kind of voice most women would like to hear at that time of day: deep, resonant, a little smoky. There’s a touch of drawl, too, something he must have picked up in his 11 years in Georgia — because it sure doesn’t sound like Chicago to this Southern girl’s ears.

He claims to have left the Windy City because of baseball.

“I moved to Athens in ’91 — I heard the Braves were doing really well. And I wanted to get away from the Cubs, although I still haven’t managed to do that — I’m wearing a Cubs T-shirt right now,” he reveals. “And crying.”

Dave’s comment, by the way, will be the only mention of eye effluvia you will find in this particular article about the Star Room Boys. “Please, please, please don’t make any tear-in-beer references,” he urges. “Literally, like 75 percent of all press about our band contains that phrase.”

Challenged to offer his own, fresher description of the Star Room Boys sound, he thinks for a minute. Slurps his coffee. Yawns. “OK, a friend of mine — and this is not exactly an answer to your question, but it might help — who’s a really terrific songwriter, was telling me he thinks our new record [This World Just Won’t Leave You Alone, Slewfoot Records, 2001] is really a lot better than the first one [Why Do Lonely Men and Women Want to Break Each Other’s Hearts, Checkered Past Records, 1999]. He thought the playing was a lot better. And,” Marr continues, “he also thought the words were a lot better because they were more straightforward, plainer, than on the first one.” (Nonetheless, a memorable snippet of a song off that last album flits through my head and gets lodged there. For the rest of the interview, I’m mentally singing, “And all your pretty little lies are like the sweat upon your thighs that just dries up as we drift off to sleep… “)

Asked if the songs’ new simplicity is intentional, Marr admits, “I don’t know that I had a specific goal in mind when I wrote them. But I think that a certain directness in that kind of songwriting is a good thing. … [The songs are] basic, but [they’re] also very easy to over-blow. I think there’s value in keeping a certain distance or a slight flatness when you’re discussing a lot of the things that are discussed on this record.”

Things like loving, losing, lying … snorting lines of cocaine. Good, country-music kinds of things. He continues, “It would be real, real easy and not very good to get carried away with that type of subject matter. And I think that happens all the time. I mean, that’s what bad country is, you know? Getting too awash in emotion or whatever and being sappy.”

Though Marr’s no fan of Nashville, he wisely notes that “bad country” doesn’t happen just there. “Well,” he says slowly, “the good alternative-country music is good country music. And the bad alternative-country music is bad country music [too].”

Gerry Livers, who books bands for Westville Pub, points out that, today, alt-country “runs the gamut from … roots rock to just old-time, bluegrassy kind of stuff.” Marr, he says, “has got a voice of gold and writes some perfectly natural and perfectly fitting songs for what they play. Which is definitely a lot more ‘pure country’ than a lot of the other alternative-country bands out there.”

He mentions the ubiquitous O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which “turned a hell of a lot of people on to [mountain] music, which has been around for hundreds of years.”

And as for the Haggard-and-Jennings brand of country the Star Room Boys play?

“Listen,” says Livers, “people have been making this kind of music for 25, 30 years. It’s just all of the sudden, somebody wanted to give it a new classification to help it fit in with what’s going on. And it’s basically just an outcry of a love for country music and not wanting to do it the way they do it on Music Row in Nashville.”

“I think there are a lot of really desperate people in Nashville,” Marr observes. “Just like there are a lot of really desperate people in Hollywood and in New York — people who go there, thinking they have a shot and they’re willing to do just about anything and act just about any way. And in most cases they’re fooling themselves. And when you run into people like that, it’s creepy. I really think it is.” So he figures he’ll stay put in Athens and keep making music there, just like he and the rest of the Star Room Boys have been doing since 1994.

“Yeah, since 1994,” Dave muses. “Man, that’s a lot of division titles for the Braves.”

[Cindy Burda is a free-lance writer and serious country-music fan living, loving and all that good stuff in Asheville. She may be reached via e-mail at cburda@buncombe.main.nc.us.]

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