For those who haven’t experienced the unique sound of the Charlottesville, Va.-based band Love Canon, don’t be surprised if you recognize many of their songs at the upcoming Aiken Bluegrass Festival on May 11-12.
Love Canon is known for not exactly “covering” music from the 1980s, but transforming it into a bluegrass joyride.
“It kind of started as an inside joke to a certain degree between the band’s banjo player and the lead singer,” said Jay Starling, Love Canon’s dobro player. “I think they were coming down Interstate 81 from somewhere up North driving back to Virginia and the song ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ came on the radio.”
The 1980s tune sparked an idea traveling down the road, Starling said.
“There happened to be a mandolin in the car, and the banjo player just grabbed the mandolin and started playing through it, and they were just kind of singing along,” Starling said. “Suddenly, they were like, ‘Man, we should start a string band that just does ’80s hits.’ And the banjo player was like, ‘Yeah, and we’ll call it Love Canon.’ And the rest is history.”
When Love Canon first began, Starling wasn’t a part of the band yet, but after hearing them play live, he said he was soon vying to join.
“I was born in 1979, and I kind of grew up with those tunes, so I loved it,” Starling said. “I’ve played a bunch of different styles, but ultimately, this is a string band. But you know, we are kind of pulling from more modern bluegrass sensibilities like David Grisman and Tony Rice as well as straight bluegrass and, then of course, ’80s tunes.”
While the idea for the band might have started off as an inside joke, Starling said Love Canon takes their music extremely seriously.
“If we wanted to, we could not do the songs justice,” Starling said. “But instead, we really get in there and fine tune the details and make the arrangements interesting.”
Starling said it’s hilarious to see the audience’s reactions to their songs.
“Sometimes we get people who say, ‘Well, I don’t really like bluegrass, but I love the 1980s, and I love you guys,’” Starling said. “Or we’ll get the opposite, where they say, ‘I can’t stand the 1980s, but I love bluegrass and I love you guys.’ But probably the best compliment I ever got was some woman said, ‘I hate the ’80s and I can’t stand bluegrass, but you guys are great!’”
As the son of John Starling, the founding member of the famous bluegrass band The Seldom Scene, Jay Starling had actually steered clear of playing bluegrass music for much of his life.
“Everybody would say, ‘Oh, you are John Starling’s son. You must be great at bluegrass.’ And I would say, ‘I never touched the stuff,’” Jay Starling said, laughing.
Instead, he studied the drums at Berklee College of Music in Boston and later began playing electric guitar and keyboards with regional bands.
It wasn’t until he began giving guitar lessons at a local music shop that he was introduced to the dobro.
“About 10 years ago, I was teaching guitar lessons at a place in Fredericksburg, Va., and I almost didn’t go in because I wasn’t feeling well and I only had one student coming in that day,” Jay Starling said. “Well, I sitting there, waiting on my one student and the delightfully crabby proctor of lessons said, ‘You have a dobro lesson in 30 minutes.’ And I asked, ‘Am I doing it or taking it? I don’t really play dobro.’”
That fact didn’t matter to the music store’s manager, Jay Starling said.
“He said, ‘The guy is like 80-something. Show him something. It doesn’t really matter,’” Jay Starling said, explaining that he picked up the dobro and started figuring out a major scale. “After that, I got kind of obsessed with it, which was kind of refreshing at 28. It was kind of nice to pick up something new and make some headway on it, and it really helped me get into that genre of bluegrass. Now, I love it. To a certain degree, it was like the monkey was off my back.”
Five months after picking up the dobro, Jay Starling was playing the national bluegrass circuit with singer Adrienne Young and later with Keller Williams.
Now with Love Canon, Jay Starling is excited to bring the band’s music to the Aiken Bluegrass Festival.
“The fairgrounds in Aiken really reminds me of an old Bluegrass festival, like some of the ones that I used to run around at when I was a little kid and watch my dad and The Seldom Scene,” Jay Starling said. “But what’s so great about it is, Aiken has that old feel that I’m very familiar with, but it’s more of an open-arms invitation to different styles of bluegrass. It’s super warm and inviting.”
And the “super jams” each night are incredible, Jay Starling said.
“Every single act that hit the main stage was a band that didn’t previously exist until they just walked up on stage,” he said. “You get to play music you’ve never done with people you’ve never played with, so I think it’s really exciting for us.”
This will be the second year that Portland-based singer and songwriter Brad Parsons will perform at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival.
His first trip to Aiken was quite memorable, Parsons said.
“Aiken was the first festival I was ever being flown out to,” Parsons said. “It was a big deal for me and I was really excited. I remember I flew out at 6 a.m. or something like that. Well, naturally, as a musician, I’m not a morning person and I overslept and missed my flight.”
Parsons joked that such a mistake was hard to live down last year.
“So I was the big guy that everybody was making fun of because he was the idiot who overslept and missed his flight,” Parsons said, laughing. “But once I got there, the atmosphere was super welcoming. I loved the mixing and matching of people on stage. And I think it was a great place to come together with other musicians and get out of our comfort zones and share our ideas.”
Jamming and improvising live on stage is what it’s all about, Parsons said.
“It’s part of the magic,” he said. “That’s the great thing about newgrass. It has a spontaneous quality, and that’s what I really enjoy about playing live music.”
The Aiken Bluegrass Festival
Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12
561 May Royal Drive