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David and the value of passing on tradition (with a twist)

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Songwriter Herb McCullough on guitar
Herb McCullough. Courtesy of Joann McCullough

One of David's most endearing songs is "Sarah", based on a real person named Sarah Melton. He loved the 1911 backstory so much that he named one of his dulcimers "Sarah" and wrote a song with long-time writing partner Herb McCullough about her. During the research for Pluck, I discovered the first clip below of David and his buddy, the great Vince Farsetta on banjo, performing "Sarah" in Dallas, Texas in 1989.

I learned over and over that David was a generous, encouraging mentor of countless people, no matter their skill level. I've previously written about the Starlings, TN band; two members, Steven Stubblefield and Tim Bryan were already skilled musicians when they met David, but were new to the dulcimer. They became his students so he taught them to play (and Tim to bow.) Once David realized their talents and passion for music, they became collaborators, and he encouraged them to form a band. He continued to support and mentor them until he felt they were ready to fly on their own.

After you watch the first video, watch the second, an informal jam by the Starlings and friends.

Like David, Steven Stubblefield passes on the mountain tradition of telling a story about the song. Yet, note the completely different rhythm, feeling and sound of the Starlings' version thanks to Steven's deep Louisiana roots that surface in his singing and in their playing.

Steven told me that David told his young proteges that he actually preferred their version, and I do, too. David's version is one of my favorite songs of his, but the Starlings's version is a perfect example of how music evolves over time when creative players discover new music, then pour their hearts and souls into a song and make it their own. It's grand to listen to both. Whenever the Starlings toured, they closed their set with their "Sarah", and audiences loved it.

What I love, too, is what this story says about David's character. He was a world-class musician and he knew it. At the same time, he wasn't afraid to give props to the youngsters for creating something that he felt had exceeded his original. He had nothing but pride in their accomplishment.

Enjoy both versions, and decide: what does each version evoke within you?

(If you stick around after "Sarah" in the first video, you'll hear David and Vince's masterful renditions of "Spanish Harlem" and "San Antonio Rose", too.)

Interested in the Starlings, TN's music? Visit Chicken Ranch Records.

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