|The Monadnock Ledger, May 8, 1986|
|HUMOR IN FOLK MUSIC
Orrin Star Learns to Mix
Orrin Star is a nationally recognized folk performer known for his
instrumental prowess on guitar, banjo and mandolin, and for
musical tastes that range from fiddle tunes to ragtime to western
swing. He will be at The Folkway in Peterborough, Saturday night,
He is also a very funny guy.
But only since becoming a solo performer in 1985 did he find the
balance between music and humor for which he'd been searching.
I think that all of us are aware at some level of the power of
humor. I mean, here is this remarkable function of our humanity
which can tickle our brains, convulse our stomachs, release our
tensions and bring us closer to whomever we experience it with.
You need not look far to figure out why humor is so popular or
why it has always been a big part of who I am.
But, as Star is quick to admit, there's many a mile between being
a funny person and being a funny person on stage.
In 1976, at 21, Star achieved national notice by winning the
National Flatpicking Championship, the largest bluegrass guitar
contest in the country. He also formed a duo with Gary Mehalick
that lasted for eight years and which came to be highly regarded
in acoustic music circles. They toured throughout the United States
and Europe and made two albums for the Flying Fish label.
While in the duo Star first realized that humor could play a role
in his own stage life.
It was two years into the duo before 1 fold my first joke on stage.
What a release! It was a risky moment for me because my ex-
partner was more self-conscious than I was and so I was
contending with his nervous vibes as well as with whatever I
feared the audience would think. But it worked. And that broke
down a wall. I started thinking more about how to injest humor
into our show from that point on.
But it wasn't until becoming a solo performer in early 1985 that
Star truly came into his own. In making the switch from duo to solo
(perhaps the biggest change in my life) he realized that he'd
need to injest more of himself into his showsthat he'd need to
become more of a folk artist than ever before.
I've always had one foot in both folk and bluegrass, and always
done a fairly diverse mix of, material on stage. But it's only since
going solo that I've given the folk side what I now see to be its
That folk side, says Star, means sharing yourself in an intimate
way with the audience. The best folk performers have always
been able to forge a special bond with their audiences. And they
do this by being personalby sharing who they are in everything
they do, from the songs they write and sing, to the stories they
tell, to the silences they leave between songs. They draw you
into their worlds.
As a humorist Star charts a charmingly wry and sardonic course
that is reminiscent of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison
Keillor's weekly National Public Radio show, on which he has
appeared. Many of his observations and stories concern the
tribulations of the folkmusical lifestyle. A recent evening included
thoughts on the folk musician's net worth ("We're talking four
figure incomes across the board"), his clothing (from the K-Mart
Matching-From-A-Distance line of designer apparel), the reason
folk music isn't more popular (because there's no annual folk
music awards program on television. There's the Grammy's and
the Emmy's-there should also be the Earthy's. It'd be great,
stretch VW's pulling up to the Plaza), and the labor of love that
playing the mandolin implies (No parent calls their child aside in,
say, junior high school and says Son, your mother and I have
been discussing your future recently and we really feel that the
mandolin is the direction you should be thinking about).
Balancing his personal and musical selves, Orrin Star today
combines the humor of the folk entertainer and the drive of the
bluegrass instrumentalist. From all indications it is a happy marriage.