John Starling, the Grammy-winning musician who co-founded the influential bluegrass group The Seldom Scene, died Thursday at his Fredericksburg, Virginia, home. He was 79.
Starling formed the D.C.-area group with John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray and Mike Auldridge back in 1971. Their name was a pun, playing off the fact that they had day jobs — Starling, for example, was an otolaryngologist. By the time he co-founded the band, he had already served in Vietnam and worked as a general surgeon in his native North Carolina.
The Seldom Scene’s style is regarded as “newgrass,” which fuses bluegrass sounds with more contemporary elements and songs, including rock and jazz.
“I think, ultimately, if you make a record and nobody knows what bin to put it in, you’ve succeeded,” he said in a 2011 interview. “John Duffey used to say, ‘Be different at all costs.’ Ben Eldridge and I were listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, and I was listening to Grateful Dead. When we got ready to make a record, we’d try to find original tunes to do.”
The Seldom Scene formed in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1971 and released its first album, “Act 1,” in 1972. Their early shows around the area included a six-year stint at Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn.
Starling would record six albums with the group as the lead vocalist and guitarist. The Bluegrass Hall of Fame considers one, 1975’s “Live at the Cellar Door,” to be “one of the most consistently best-selling bluegrass albums of all time.”
Starling left in 1977 to focus on his medical practice, but he remained active in music and was involved in various other projects, even after he retired from medicine. Highlights include a 1991 Grammy for best bluegrass album (“Spring Training” with Carl Jackson and the Nash Ramblers) and recording with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
He even returned briefly to The Seldom Scene in the early ’90s, then once again for a guest appearance on their most-recent album, 2014’s “Long Time … Seldom Scene.”
He was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
Starling is survived by a wife and son.