Falling under the spell of Tammy Faye Starlite is an experience that's impossible to duplicate, unless you've ever been to Dollywood while under the influence of prescription drugs. As portrayed in concert and on record by New York-based performance artist Tammy Lang, Starlite is an emotionally conflicted coquette of a country singer whose life and work are guided by that genre's Holy Trinity of muses: old-time religion, rampant promiscuity and chemical abuse.
Starlite's willing spirit and weak flesh get equal play on her debut EP, "On My Knees," a mélange of tunes and interview segments in which the addled-but-earnest singer extols the virtues of incest, calls out for Wild Turkey and Dramamine, and implores her Jewish listeners to convert to the theological good side. But the act really comes into its own on stage. Dres-sed in white and made up like an older, prom-bound JonBenet Ramsey, Starlite pauses in between songs to challenge her audience with an unannounced quiz.
"Do you have a daddy?" she probes.
Yes, comes the response.
"Do you have a favorite part of your daddy's anatomy?"
The crowd chuckles.
"I know, it's hard to choose. But if I had to choose, I would choose my daddy's hands."
She then pulls an audience member up on stage, one who she says reminds her of her pop. Something, however, is amiss.
"When I was with my daddy, I never really had this many clothes on."
So she strips down to her panties, stockings and garter, and situates herself on the fan's lap, the better to re-create the good times. Let lesser female performers debate their positions within the madonna-whore complex.; Starlite is the madonna-whore complex.
In the course of a phone interview with Lang, I make this very same observation.
"Bless your heart," she lilts. "That's so sweet." Sometimes, it's hard to tell where one Tammy ends and the other one begins.
Maid, not born
This much is known. Lang (www.tammyfayestarlite.com) is an actress, singer and comedienne whose résumé includes a stint playing one of "two wacky maids" on the daytime drama "The Guiding Light." (The other: Allison Janney, more recently of "The West Wing.") To exercise her less mainstream bent, Lang started doing performance comedy on the lower east side of Manhattan. For one appearance, she assumed the persona of a country-and-western singer who interrupted her rendition of the Tammy Wynette classic "Stand By Your Man" to wax rhapsodic about a group sexual assault in her past.
"Everybody loves a good gang rape," Lang reasons.
The actress was on to something, and in her subsequent development of the Starlite character, she decided to embody a "photo negative" of a country singer, one whose human failings would be paraded before the world, rather than relegated to scurrilous backstage gossip. Her lusts would be manifest. Booze and drugs would always be within her reach. Only one ingredient remained.
"I decided to make her a right-wing Christian," Lang says. "Being a left-wing Jew myself, it seemed fitting and fun."
At that point, the act consisted of Lang and a lone guitarist she retained for accompaniment. While watching The Nashville Network, she noticed an ad for a seminar wherein music-industry professionals would rate the songs of novices. An in-character trip to the country capital seemed warranted, and so it was that Tammy Faye came to favor an audience at the Opryland Hotel (now the Gaylord Opryland) with her "God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus," an original pro-life anthem that reminds uppity wimminfolk of the merely functional role their bodies play in the Lord's great design.
The response, she says, was nigh on rapturous, with cries of, "Play that uterus song again!"
Not every crowd was so indulgent. At the Bluebird Cafe, Starlite was hissed for performing "Ride the Cotton Pony," a bronco-busting musical jaunt through that time of the month. Nor was the room won over by "Moonshiner's Child," a sideways take on "Coal Miner's Daughter" that revels in a family tradition of illicit boozing and sexual shenanigans.
"They turned my mike down, and we just ran out of there," Lang remembers.
A pattern began to assert itself: The Starlite routine was lost on the stuffed shirts, but embraced by underground audiences eager to participate in the deflation of C&W pomposity. Continued live activity saw the act expand to a full band, the Angels of Mercy, whose membership has varied over the course of Starlite's studio and live work. The current lineup includes bassist Jared Nickerson (who has worked with Freedy Johnston and Vernon Reid); guitarist Rich Feridun (of the alt/Celtic band Rogue's March); vocalist/tambourine player Eric Drysdale; and keyboardist Bob Packwood (no, not the erstwhile U.S. senator). Drummer Ken Coomer, meanwhile, "might be the only member of Wilco who did not sleep with Winona Ryder," Lang says. "But I can't be sure."
In the past two years, the Angels have logged most of their travel miles in trips to Los Angeles and Nashville, but the band also has visited Memphis, Raleigh, New Orleans, Atlanta and Seattle. Last June, the Starlite touring party even crossed the Canadian border on two separate occasions.
"They have the funny money over there," Lang reveals, again slipping into Starlite's trademark tone of medicated wonder. "It's like little magic coins."
Is nothing sacred, cowgirl?
OK, so a joke's a joke, but this one works because it's backed up by the two qualities any good parody requires: talent and affection. Lang clearly and dearly loves country music, a trait that endows even the most eviscerating of her songs and statements with the aura of endearment.
An urban rock chick by nature, she came to C&W via the proverbial back door, following the chain of inspiration from Keith Richards to Gram Parsons to Loretta Lynn. (To this day, when she's not appearing as Starlite, Lang gets her ya-yas out by fronting a cover outfit, The Mike Hunt Band -- sound it out, people -- which performs Stones albums in their entirety. The most rewarding to master, she says, was "Exile on Main Street;" the least, "Out of Our Heads.")
Upon discovering the music of the Judds, Lang says, "it seemed like all my troubles melted away." She now views the family act with a combination of tenderness and mockery that's typical of her relationship to country in general.
"They're such freaks that it makes them even more beautiful," Lang maintains of Naomi and Wynonna. "They've gotten stranger and stranger as their hair has gotten redder and redder." Her obsession with Nashville stars came in handy when a friend admitted an inability to tell Tracy Lawrence from Toby Keith. Lang's explanation: "Tracy is a redneck, but Toby is a racist."
Being capable of such incisive critiques, Lang knew, meant that she would always have to view the music from the perspective of a city girl looking in. "I can't be a real [country singer]," she remembers thinking, "so I'll just be a fake one."
The irony is that Lang's fakery rings more down-home accurate than most of the Shania-isms of contemporary country radio. In songs like "If You're Comin' Down, Sweet Jesus ... (Won't You Come All Over Me)," Starlite segues convincingly from a honeyed gospel croon to a chicken-crisp Dixie yelp. With chops like these, it's easy to wonder why Starlite hasn't racked up a single one of the country-music awards that seem to be doled out about every two weeks.
"Amy Grant," she declares, then lets the answer sit.
Trends in low places
The charts currently dominated by Grant and her ilk will face a more serious assault from Starlite/Lang when she releases her forthcoming full-length disc, "Used Country Female," in February. The title, she says, comes from a sign she saw in an L.A. record store announcing the availability of pre-owned vinyl, but she knew it could apply just as closely to Starlite's extensive carnal history. Yet the record -- which includes contributions from Richard Lloyd of Television and Mike Daly of Whiskeytown -- is no mere gag.
"There are no spoken parts, no comedy bits in between," Lang says. "Some of it is just straight-out rock & roll that has nothing to do with country or Tammy Faye."
Perhaps she's afraid of being stranded in the novelty-act ghetto. Lang claims to loathe "funny" country songs of the sort popularized by Ray Stevens -- or, one might add, Cletus T. Judd. She's all right with material that's, as she puts it, "real and funny, like Shel Silverstein, Loretta Lynn or 'A Boy Named Sue.' But if it mentions Jesus at a gas station, or anything to do with truck stops ... "
There's another danger inherent in the Starlite act. In almost every crowd, there's bound to be at least one listener who just doesn't get it, perceiving instead an actual endorsement of the reactionary hypocrisy Tammy Faye is meant to lampoon. Lang claims to embrace that risk -- in fact, she says that her favorite reaction to engender is, "Is that real or not?" -- but there are still certain routines she's learned not to repeat. Take "He's Lynchin' and I'm Lonely," the lament of a country wife whose husband has more time for KKK activities than for her.
"Nobody really thought the white-supremacy angle was too funny," she recalls, with an obvious twinge of regret.
Every once in a while, a girl has to be too scathing for the room. But there's provocation to burn in Tammy Faye's surviving repertoire, including one ditty that may be the best expression yet of a country girl's frustration at being unable to meet the lovin' needs of her fella.
"Well, it's hard satisfyin' a man who's obsessed," Starlite wails. "And I wonder/ Did I shave my vagina for this?"
Amen, Miss Tammy. And Cletus not into temptation.