Starlett & Big John- Living in the South review

Starlett & Big John Living in the South Rebel Records

Rebel Records, going back a generation and continuing with Mark Freeman, has always found a way to identify groups ready to ascend to ‘the next level.’ Starlett & Big John is the latest.

In 2021 Turnberry Records put out the duo’s debut, Till the End of the Road. An impressive and lively release comprised of a solid selection of originals and covers, the record gained Starlett & Big John notice, got them an IBMA Showcase, and brought them to Freeman’s attention. It was a good calling card.

A year ago, with Ron Stewart (fiddle, harmony vocals) at the producer’s helm a gathering of musicians assembled in southern Virginia for a recording session. The product of that experience is now available on Rebel Records, and represents the second album for Starlett Boswell (bass, lead and harmony vocals) and John Talley (guitar, lead and harmony vocals) and their first for the venerable Rebel Records.

Starlett & Big John make as traditional-sounding bluegrass as one can within contemporary circumstances. Unfortunately, gender biases haven’t yet been fully pushed aside, but this duo’s high lonesome country-brushed bluegrass should find favour with all true lovers of bluegrass. Both Boswell and Talley are powerful singers, ones who do not infuse their songs with false emotion. Rather, their presentation is as natural as wood grain, as individual as each plank cut.

Joining the vocalists are banjoist David Carroll (“…a monster!” in the opinion of liner note writer Adam Steffey) and Johnathan Dillon, “THE most underrated mandolin player out there,” again effusively praised by Steffey. Listening, one hears no reason to challenge Mr. Steffey. Tulley is as impressive with his lead and rhythm contributions.

One of the elements that makes Starlett & Big John standout is the quality of their original songs. The strongest of these may be the engaging lost love/road song “Straight 58” (“I’ll water the bluegrass with the tears from my eyes…”) while “The Ties That Bind” runs a close second; on this latter number, Starlett’s classic country influences are on full display.

“Living in the South,” a song of nostalgia, is another memorable song strengthened by both Roswell’s timeless voice and the personal elements included within its lyrical construction. Stewart’s mournful Dobro and fiddle further contribute to the sepia-toned images of the song; he does the same later, elevating “Slowly Let Me Down” with fiddle touches.

While occasionally exchanging lines and verses (“Setting the Woods on Fire,”) Starlett and Big John harmonize effectively when duetting on their own material (“Quit Quittin’ You,” “Slowly Let Me Down,” and “Clean Slate,”) and when interpreting a seldom encountered number like “The Dirt That You Throw” and the more familiar “Safely in the Arms of Jesus.”

Among the covers also included are “Back Away Little Heart” and “Makeup and Faded Blue Jeans,” both featuring Talley taking the lead. The album’s first track, “Makin’ Tracks to Macon,” utilizes wordplay without slipping into novelty. The most impacting cover is Harlan Howard’s “Deepening Snow,” recorded by the likes of Bobby Bare, Connie Smith, Tammy Wynette, and the Vincent’s Sally Mountain Show. Obviously a classic, Roswell demonstrates her ability to make a beloved standard her own.

Having not encountered Starlett & Big John prior to Living in the South arriving in my mailbox, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Trust Rebel. Trust Ron Stewart. They understand the talent they are backing, and Living in the South provides ample evidence that this duo possesses the qualities required to satisfy bluegrass audiences.



Outstanding musicianship.

Strong leads.

Something a little different and memorable.

Really, really good bluegrass.

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