General Interest Profile
The Star of Brooklyn Bluegrass

An award-winning bluegrass guitar, banjo and mandolin picker
with a dry sense of humor--from Brooklyn?

The irony of this is not lost on Orrin Star, the ‘Brooklyn Bluegrass
Maestro’, who enjoys the fact that his musical calling defies
stereotypes.

“Being a bluegrass musician from Boston was a stretch for people”,
says Star, who was born in Israel, raised in New Jersey and spent
a number of years in New England before ‘coming south’ to New
York in 1993. “But being from Brooklyn is the ultimate. Forget about
it.”

“I like things that challenge preconceptions, because they force you to
take a fresh look. And my life, it seems, is one of those ‘things’. I remember
once saying to a concert crowd ‘folks, you know you’re in for a special
night when you've a Jewish bluegrass singer from New Jersey playing
at an Italian restaurant in Dublin, New Hampshire.’”

Star’s first exposure to roots music was at home. “Though there were
no musicians in my family, my father loved certain folk artists. He was
a huge Clancy Brothers fan. Me and my brothers would play tapes of
their albums all the time. My folks were also into Joan Baez. The first
bluegrass I heard was her recordings of “Darlin’ Pal of Mine” and ”Banks
of the Ohio” accompanied by the Greenbriar Boys.”

But his musical calling didn’t really commence until he was fifteen years
old, during his second season at a summer arts camp in Connecticut.
“There was counselor named Roy Book Binder who used to sit on the
lawn and play great old delta blues songs on his guitar. He brought
Reverend Gary Davis up to do concerts both summers I was there.
By the second year I was hooked.”

Back home in South Brunswick, New Jersey, Star spent hours during
his high school years diligently transcribing fingerstyle blues tunes off
old records. He also became interested in other styles of traditional
American music, which he was exposed to at gatherings of the
Princeton Folk Music Society and at area folk festivals he started
attending.

It was at one such festival in 1969 where he saw his first flatpicking--the
virtuouso style of playing fiddle tunes on the guitar (whose chief exponent
is Doc Watson).“There was something so primally exciting about it; I was
mesmerized. I thought to myself ‘man, I want to be able to do that!’”

Just seven years later Star travelled to Winfield, Kansas, and did ‘that’
in a big way: he won the 1976 National Flatpicking Championship, the
largest bluegrass guitar contest in the country (the first player from the
northeast to do so).

That same fall Star formed a duo with Gary Mehalick, another gifted
Boston-area guitarist and singer, and decided to pursue music full-time.
Together for eight years, they toured extensively, recorded two albums
and appeared on A Prairie Home Companion.

In 1984 Star embarked on a solo career. He also started focusing more
on his relationship with the audience. “I started being looser on stage
and telling some stories while I was still in the duo. But there was a
deeper level that I was trying to get to--the kind of rapport that I felt when
I watched guys like Arlo Guthrie and David Bromberg perform.”

This quest for more self-expression and humor led him to open-mike
nights at local comedy clubs--and to a second career as a stand-up
comic. “I worked both as a comedian and a musician during my last five
years in Boston. Though I don’t do straight stand-up anymore, the time
I spent in the comedy trenches was invaluable; I learned things about
writing and timing and being myself with an audience that sustain me
to this day.” (Asked if there was anything special that sets Brooklyn
bluegrass apart Star replies “Yes--it’s the sauce.”)

And indeed Star’s performances today reflect his dual musical and
comedic passions. The Boston Globe described him as “one of the
finest flatpickers in captivity. He’s come a long way since winning the
National Championship in ‘76, and his wry humor has been honed to
razor-sharp.”

A recent concert set featured a bluegrass vocal standard (“New River
Train”); an off-the-beaten-track banjo showpiece (Don Stover’s “Black
Diamond”); a flatpicked Argentinian waltz (“Partida”); an original ballad
(“Maggie My Friend”); a western swing version of another bluegrass
favorite (“Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”); a haunting mandolin
rendition of a Celtic fiddle tune (“Tamlin”)--as well as musings on
karaoke (“it’s basically Star Search for alcoholics”) and on Brooklyn
(“It’s kind of bittersweet being here today because, back in my neigh-
borhood in Brooklyn, I’m missing the annual Running of the Pit Bulls”).

“Concerts are what I live for. After almost 25 years on stage, I know
who I am and what I am doing, and I have a lot to say. Musically I
consider myself a fieldhand on the ranch of American roots music.
Comedically I’m a guy who knows a good story when he experiences
one and loves getting it right for an audience. So my shows have links to
both past and present. They provide something real and personal.”

Orrin is a sought-after teacher as well as performer (giving private
lessons at home and group workshops while on tour). He is a columnist
for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine and the author of a popular bluegrass
guitar instruction book. His website is www.flatpick.com/ostar.