Spencer Starnes, a Seguin native who moved to Austin in the 1970s and became a renowned bass player and studio engineer, died Thursday evening at his home in Spicewood, apparently of a heart attack. He was 64.
Born Cameron Spencer Starnes III on Dec. 2, 1952, he came from a musical family. His father, a World War II veteran who survived the Bataan Death March, had played trumpet for swing-jazz bandleader Tommy Dorsey and ran a music store in Seguin. After stints as a student at Stephen F. Austin University, Texas State (then Southwest Texas State) and the University of Texas, Starnes began playing music regularly in Austin in the early 1970s.
Starnes was part of an avant garde jazz group called 47 Times Its Own Weight, but his first major gig in town was in the late 1970s with Ray Benson’s western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He also toured with cosmic-cowboy pioneer Michael Murphey but eventually chose a life that involved less touring and more engineering work at a studio he started on property he and fellow Austin musician Mambo John Treanor, a childhood friend from Seguin, bought in the hills west of town in the 1970s.
“He was a great and imaginative bass player, both on upright and on electric,” Benson said Saturday. “He had his own sound, which was really cool.”
Benson recalled Asleep at the Wheel making two key mid-1980s albums at Starnes’ Bee Creek Recording Studio after the band had gone five years without a record.
“We sort of made our comeback out of that little mobile home studio he had over at Bee Creek,” Benson said.
In the decades that followed, Starnes’ Bee Creek Recording Studio became a prominent regional facility, with artists ranging from honky-tonker Junior Brown and pop singer Jennifer Warnes to local jazz band the Brew recording there. All the while, Starnes continued to build an extensive résumé as a bassist on albums by Willie Nelson, Alejandro Escovedo, Don Walser, Suzy Bogguss, Kimmie Rhodes, Paul Glasse and many others.
Working with Austin Media Music alongside fellow Austin musicians such as John Mills and Danny Levin, Starnes also was involved in many recordings of commercial jingles. Because they tapped local players for those sessions, “the whole community would benefit from these projects,” said nephew Stephen Starnes, who had worked with his uncle at Bee Creek since the 1990s.
“He had a level of sophistication in terms of his musical ability that was top-notch,” Benson said. “This town has always had the guys who were not only great jazz musicians, but were all-around guys. He did commercials, did studio work, engineering, bass playing, arranging.”
Stephen Starnes recalled a story that former Austin percussionist Paul Pearcy related about crossing paths with Starnes while both were on tour with different acts. Pearcy remembered that while other band members were out and about at the hotel, “Spencer was in his room with his acoustic bass and a click track, practicing scales and fundamentals.”
As an engineer or musician, Starnes was part of three recordings that received Grammy Awards. Two involved Asleep at the Wheel projects; the third was Buddy Guy’s 1994 album “Slippin’ In,” which was recorded in Austin.
For the past 15 years, Starnes also was an anchor of musical activities on Sundays at Riverbend Church.
“There’s barely a Sunday that we can remember when he was not at Riverbend … playing bass,” the Riverbend Choir posted to its Facebook page on Friday.
Family members said they especially remember Starnes for “his love of animals and nature, and his general stewardship of the planet.” He operated his property in Spicewood mostly off the grid, using conservation resources such as solar panels and rain barrels. His daily routine included walking down to the lake and swimming with his dogs.
Survivors include Lynne Renee Johnson of Spicewood, his partner of 26 years; half-sister Judith Lawrence Marshall of Burneyville, Okla.; half-brother Charles Mott Lawrence of Paso Robles, Calif.; nephews Stephen Lloyd Starnes Jr. of Seguin, Charles Cameron Starnes of Kyle and Jason Read Starnes of New Braunfels; niece Amy Starnes Kainer of Tomball; and many other relatives. He was preceded in death by his parents, Cameron Spencer Starnes II and Mary Isabelle Harvey, and brother Stephen Lloyd Starnes Sr.
A public memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Smith Family Chapel at Riverbend Church, 4214 N. Capital of Texas Highway.