Featured Interview – Wes Starr


Cover photo © 2023 Marilyn Stringer

imageDespite being credited on over 50 recordings, it probably is a safe bet that many blues listeners would draw a blank when asked about Wes Starr. A quick look at the list of artists that he has recorded with would certainly prove the validity of the old adage, you can tell a lot about a person by the friends they keep. Starr has been the timekeeper for many of the best in the business, sometimes doing several stints with an artist over the years, which is another indication of how well respected he is.

In a career that crosses numerous decades, Starr has enjoyed the rewards of success, and experienced some severe challenges that tested his mettle. But he persevered, always turning back to his drum kit to stay grounded.

The aspiring musician got an early start, taking lessons from a local woman along with five other kids in his neighborhood, charged a dollar per hour at a time when drumsticks cost 65 cents.

“She was the drum lieutenant in the school band, lived across the creek from me and her senior year, to make a little extra money, she taught us. The next year, when I was in the fifth grade, I joined the school program. But she instilled this passion for it. And the other five people that took lessons from her, we all became professional drummers.

“Her name was Patti Tolbert. She went on to play with really big orchestras in Europe, like the Vienna Symphony and an orchestra in London. Then she came back to Georgia and got her tenure and finished teaching at the University of Georgia as the head of the percussion department. She gave us great exercises and just made it fun, so we wanted to work at it. We’d sit and play on steps with our sticks.

“Plus, I had a brother five years older than me that played in some really good regional rock bands. They would rehearse in our basement since we had a big house. I had three older brothers. I would sit on the stairs and listen to them play. When they’d take a break, or go to the store, go out and have a smoke, I’d go down and sit in on the drums.”

Another factor in his development was his dad being a radio engineer at a station in Rome, Georgia, WRGA-AM, which had a big studio like a lot of the stations did back then. Rome was a train stop on the line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. A lot of the bands would stop by to do a radio show to promote their shows coming up in Atlanta, Chattanooga, or further on down the line.

“I would sit in the studio and watch these guys play. That got me going early on as a kid, you know? After they did the show, we would take them across the street to the billiard hall, where I got to hang out and listen to their jargon. I thought it was the coolest thing on earth. Then my brother’s band kind of got me going, plus I grew up with the bass player R.W. Grigsby.

“We learned our instruments together, although he started a little before me, but the first gig I ever did was with him at the local Teen Center. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains was a wonderful place to grow up. I had incredible parents and grew up in the woods, learning all the survival skills that my dad taught me and my brothers.”

Starr played in bands in high school, and later played in local rock, jazz, and dance bands with Grigsby. They also were going to a lot of concerts together.

“There were free concerts every Sunday in Atlanta. The Allman Brothers had a big effect on me. Also, there was a great jazz club where I would go see acts like Big Mama Thornton and jazz drummer Elvin Jones, who was another big influence on me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to play. I was playing Southern rock and trying to play jazz. Of course I was listening to blues on the stations that I could get late night on the radio.”

One day he got an invitation to move to California from a drummer friend who had moved out west. Living in a poor area of north Georgia, seeing friends stuck working in the mill, others with pregnant girlfriends, Starr decided it was time to move on.

image“So I moved to California with my parents blessings, and that’s where I started pursuing music. I also met some really good people who became lifelong friends, like Kim Wilson and Nick Connolly, the keyboard player who later got me into Delbert McClinton’s band.

“The way it started happening is I moved into an apartment right on the beach. One day this guy knocks on the door. He lived next door and he said, hey, you guys play instruments, you wanna start a band? Me and my two brothers, we have to take a trip but we’ll be back in a few months and we’ll start a band. Then they sailed to Columbia. When they got back, we started a band called Oro, which is Spanish for gold. We had a new van and equipment, doing Grateful Dead type stuff. Then I got into a local band called the Hit and Run Swing Band, which really got me started, coming in on the coattails of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, doing thirties and forties stuff.

“Kim Wilson was the one that got me to move to Austin, Texas. I went out and visited him, and he introduced me to everybody. Things were just starting to happen there. And I did an audition with Omar and The Howlers, got hired, so I came back and had about a month to get my stuff together, then moved there in 1979 to play with Omar Dykes. I found a house, got moved in, and then I hit the road for six weeks right off the bat.

Making the move to Austin, Starr found a friendly musical community, where people helped each other out instead of trying to cut heads. He was part of Omar & the Howlers first album, Big Leg Beat, eventually recording five other records with Dykes.

“After a couple of years, Omar wanted to take a break. We were a five piece band and after the break, we decided to go to a trio. Omar always had a full band, five or six members. That went on for about a year and a half. I was so, so hungry for music and constantly wanting to grow as a musician, so I left Omar’s band on good terms and immediately joined Marcia Ball’s band and did her first album, Soulful Dress. I stayed with Marcia for a couple years.

“During my tenure with Omar, I met my longtime friend Anson Funderburgh. We worked together on the album, Harpoon Man, by Greg “Fingers” Taylor, who was the harmonica player for Jimmy Buffett. Fingers was from Mississippi, and when he wasn’t on the road with Buffett, he would do shows with Omar because Fingers wanted to play blues.

“Around 1983, we did the recording sessions for Harpoon Man. He used me and several other members of Marcia’s band on half of it. The rest was done with Anson and his band, the Rockets. We had met before that, but Anson and I really got to know each other in the studio, which paved the way for things to come. The next year we recorded the first record that Anson and Sam Myers did together, My Love Is Here to Stay. I left Marcia’s band around that time to tour with Fingers. When he went back to work with Buffett, I ended up joining Asleep at the Wheel.

“At that point, I was basically gone. I think we were doing about 300 dates a year. It was a real learning experience. When I wasn’t on the road, I was down at Antone’s, the famous Austin music venue, playing with somebody. You can’t say enough about that club, and owner Clifford Antone, how important they were for me, playing with artists like Hubert Sumlin, guitarist Mel Brown, or the great piano player, Sunnyland Slim. Finally, I left Asleep at the Wheel when my wife and I started having kids.”

A short time later, Starr got a call from another guitarist friend, Mason Ruffner, who had just released an album produced by Dave Edmunds. It was quite an opportunity.

“Mason was friends with guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame. They knew each other in New Orleans. Since Mason’s record was on a major label, Page asked him if he wanted to tour, opening for Page’s new band, the Firm, which featured Paul Rodgers, formerly of Free and Bad Company.

“Mason asked me about a bass player. So I mentioned Sarah Brown. We ended up touring, being rock stars for a year, went from playing a club on a Tuesday night with Mason that held 60 people when it was full, and by Friday we were playing the Omni in Atlanta for 17,000 people. I became really good friends with Jimmy, plus it got that “star” thing out of my system. It opened my eyes a lot.”

imageOnce that ended, the drummer stayed at home, being a dad. But because he was now around Austin all the time, he started getting calls, especially from a number of singer/songwriters, like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Kimmie Rhodes. Starr recorded three records with Gilmore in addition to two more with Rhodes. He also worked with tenor saxophonist Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff on the Tri-Sax-Ual Soul Champs Go Girl! Album on Black Top Records.

“That is a wonderful album. I also did several records with Erik and the Offbeats, which was a mix of musicians from Asleep at the Wheel. That band had a huge following around town. You know, leaving a band for the right reasons is always good. Jumping way ahead, I’ve gone back and played with all these people over the years because I never burned the bridge. When I left, usually it was for personal reasons, like having kids, you know, or musically, I wanted to go another direction. As long as you’re honest, you know, that’s the golden rule. You never leave a gig to take another gig unless you have their blessings. It’s a great philosophy.”

It was his old friend Nick Connolly who finally provided an offer that got Starr to take up roadwork again. Connolly was handling keyboards in singer Delbert McClinton’s band, and they needed a drummer. Once he was hired, Starr spent three years touring with McClinton, somehow never managing to do a recording with the singer.

“I mean, that was a really great time. There were a lot of great players in that band. Then, when I left Delbert around 1990, I hooked up with Hal Ketchum, a singer that I used to work with in Austin during the time I was in Asleep at the Wheel. He released his Past The Point Of Rescue album and, damn, the first single shot up the country charts. We hit the road, had a sound, and the record company left us alone. That was when there was a resurgence of country music in Nashville. We weren’t a “hat” act. Hal was very well respected because he wrote about 80% of his own material.

“Of course, when you’re in that big machine of country music, starting out, you play every damn state fair and rodeo in the country the first year or so. Then we started branching out, and we kept having top 10 hits. We had 14 of them in the four and a half years I was with him. We had a great sound as a four piece band, but I always called our fifth instrument the vocalists, because the guys sang like birds.

“Then later on, when we started headlining big theaters, we brought on Reese Wynans on keyboards. Reese hadn’t had a gig since Stevie Ray Vaughan had passed. So this is his first gig, but he was still going through that grieving process. It was a difficult time for Reese.”

Eventually Starr decided to leave Ketchum’s band, only to get a call from McClinton, inviting him to rejoin the band for what turned out to be several years. When his fourth child, his daughter, was born in 1996, Starr once again left the road to be home.

“We were out doing a summer tour. It was great lineup with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Taj Mahal, Delbert, the Neville Brothers, and B.B. King. That was the way to go out with a bang! In the middle of the tour between the East and West coasts, Delbert and I flew to Nashville so that I could be there for my daughter’s birth. Then I finished up the tour, came home, and that was it. Delbert was always really good to me.”

Once again he started playing locally, teaming up with several other sideman on Tuesday nights to write songs, which lead to an album and local gigs.

“I filled in for Anson’s drummer on an overseas tour, so I took some of those records with me. Months later I learned that we had a hit on Norwegian National Radio. We ended up going over to tour Norway. You never know how things will turn out. In 2000, I moved back to Austin. Anson was losing his drummer and bass player, so I joined the Rockets full-time along with Johnny Bradley on bass.”

In 2003, Starr nearly had his career literally cut short after an accident.

image“Yeah, the table saw. I have people come up to me after every show, asking how come you hold your stick like that? And it’s just out of necessity. A lot of drummers are in my age group. We’ve all gone through the carpal tunnel and elbow surgeries, the back issues. I have good posture, so I’ve never had those issues.

“But I just about took my thumb off, and the saw blade got into a lot of the nerves and bone. I just had to learn to play another way. I’d already been doing some of that, when I was going through my troubles with my hands going numb. Before I had surgery I used to put my stick over in the middle of two fingers to get some release until I got the feeling back in my thumb and forefinger, then I’d put the stick back over. I had to learn how to play like that all the time, had to sit down and do some wood shedding, so my sticks weren’t flying everywhere when I did rolls and drops. I lost the ability to do certain things, but I gained some other stuff through years of playing.”

In 2007, Starr joined Omar Dykes, Jimmie Vaughan, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Gary Primich, and other musicians for On The Jimmy Reed Highway, a tribute album on Ruf Records. A second album, Big Town Playboy, was released  under the Dykes name with Vaughan, Starr, Ronnie James on bass, Derek O’Brien and Gary Clark Jr. also on guitar, plus Cotton and Lazy Lester on harmonica.

“ When we made that record, I had a tragedy happen. My brother passed away, so we almost didn’t make the record. I told the guys that I need to go back to Georgia for the funeral, but I didn’t need to go back for about three days. Those records have a special place in my heart because sometimes I wouldn’t make it through a song, just had to stop and kind of break down, because of this intense duress I was going through. But, you know, Jimmie had lost his brother, Omar just lost his wife a few years before that. So I was in good hands and I wanted to make it. So, yeah, it’s a special record to be.”

Around the same time, Starr was part of another project, this time for a younger artist just starting to make his mark in the blues world.

“I did the Magic Touch album with John Nemeth. That is one of my favorite records, and I’m on a lot of records. The way Anson produced it, the music and how it sounds, it is just a great record. I had been playing some with Nick Moss in Chicago. Nick said that we would have a singer from Idaho joining us for some festival dates. Nick picked John up at the airport, we did a festival the next day, and as soon as we finished our set, I called Anson to say, I found us a singer!

“And then I started playing in John’s band with Junior Watson. We played together for a couple years and we did that album, which kind of got John’s career jump started. It was on Blind Pig Records, so it got more recognition. We toured pretty heavily behind that for a couple years with me, John, Junior on guitar, and Kid Andersen on bass.

“But that was when I started getting a bit out of control. We did a European tour that had a lot of drama from me, and I ended up basically getting fired. I didn’t learn my lesson at that point. It took me a few more years to figure it out. Now I’ve got five and a half year sobriety, which has turned my whole life around. I just didn’t put it down. When I first started going to a meetings, this old timer came up to me and said, “Good to see you here, son. You know, the good news is you never have to have drink the rest of your life. Bad news is, that’s not the problem”.

“ I thought he was crazy as hell. Well, it took me 20 something years to figure out what he meant. So I went and got some help, stayed in a sober house for 20 months, and actually managed it for the last six months I was there. I put my big boy pants on and got my shit together.

“The only person that can do it is yourself. I had been to three rehabs in a 12 year period. I went for other people. I didn’t go for me. It took me to go check myself into a mental hospital, and from there go to a great rehab that I was able to get into it because of the wonderful stuff they do in Austin music community with the SIMS Foundation, which I’ve supported by playing many benefits to raise money to provide insurance for the mental and physical well-being of Austin musicians. They came to my rescue and I got the help I needed.

Image“I got my shit together, and slowly started playing again. That meant going through the whole rigmarole of playing a gig, coming back to the home, and getting tested. My first road trip was with Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones. I did two tours with him four and a half years ago, so I was about a year sober. I went out with Doug, did two back-to-back tours, and then still stayed in the sober house for another year. I stayed in Austin, didn’t run away. I had messed it up pretty good, but I made amends where I could.”

One friend that stuck by Starr during this period was Mark Hummel, the harmonica player known for his Harmonica Blowout shows that feature a mixture of some of the best blues harp players.

“Mark was behind me. He didn’t fire me. He just let me get my shit together. Then he had me back in the fold. And that’s saying a lot. Me and Mark can butt heads, but I tell you what, he was there for me. So was R.W. Grigsby. Those guys have a lot of years sobriety between the two of them, 50 years plus. They are two guys I could lean on.”

Several other people have helped Starr navigate life during the pandemic years. Another harmonica player, Bob Corritore, has brought the drummer to his Rhythm Room club in Phoenix, AZ, for recordings and live shows multiple times in recent years, allowing Starr to form a formidable backing band with Jimi “Prime Time” Smith on guitar and the ageless Bob Stroger on bass.

“We’ve developed not only this incredible comfortable musical thing, but a friendship that’s phenomenal. When we go in the studio, we’ve got it down. We don’t even have to think about if we’ve got it locked in, we’ve got our thing going on. And that’s a wonderful feeling, you know, for a rhythm section, so that’s just been to me very, very special.”

And love came knocking in an unusual fashion. Starr had dated a woman for several years before moving to Austin. Fast forward 40 years, to a show with Hummel in Morro Bay, CA. His long-lost girlfriend showed up with her sister. They spent the evening getting caught up, which led to more lengthy phone conversations. Soon, the flames of love were burning brightly.

“So I ended up moving out here to California in November last year. And for us, the pandemic worked out wonderfully because we really got to know each other. And at our age, we’re so grateful to have each other.  I’m getting ready to turn 69 in a couple weeks. We talk all the time about how it just sucks getting old, because we have very useful minds, but our body says, fuck you. But we’re making the best of it.”

Asked about his approach and philosophy in his role as a drummer, Starr quickly showed that his decades of experience has taught him that simpler is better.

“I figured out pretty early on that there’s guys that have the chops to play circles around me, and I’ve got to find my own place. The guy that put that in my head was Grady “Fats” Jackson, the great sax player who I met when I was a teenager. He told me, don’t ever not take a gig because you don’t think you’re good enough. And he instilled that if it’s a little uncomfortable, that’s good for you.

“What it really comes down to is creating a good groove, and a good feel. You are the anchor of the band, the behind the scenes leader. You’re part of that foundation that’s so important to creating a very wide berth and the ability to move. I was gifted with very good ears and people like to play with me because I have a very, very solid groove.

“I always play for the song. You play what’s important to the song, and particularly with the vocalists, to take them to a higher place. Hal Ketchum once gave me the best compliment I had ever heard. He was talking to some reporters. He looked back at me and he said, “Now I’ve got Wes, he’s got power and grace.” That’s what I’ve spent many years trying to succeed at.”

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