With some help from Steve Earle, songbird Garrison Starr is road-ready

When Garrison Starr chirps 'A-one-two-huh!' before blasting into 'Something's Gotta Change,' she means it. Guitarist Cary Beare cranks up a ferocious guitar lick, and Starr's off and roaring like Melissa Etheridge at full power.

'Something's Gotta Change' kicks off Starr's current CD, 'Songs From Take-off to Landing,' and corresponds with a major change in her outlook, she says.

Starr opens in Portland for apocalyptic country and blues monster Steve Earle after she spent almost a year on the road.

'I've been everywhere, done a great job scouring the U.S.,' she says, speaking by telephone from Austin, Texas.

Starr began her tour opening for Cracker, headlined some shows in the South (she's from Mississippi), hit the West Coast with ex-Whiskeytown fiddler Caitlin Cary and played five weeks of solo acoustic gigs with Etheridge.

'It was awesome Ñ she just wanted me solo, and I got to ride the bus with her crew,' Starr says of Etheridge. 'I guess the last tour, she'd been with Rosey and Meredith Brooks, and it was a cluster.'

So much travel has given Starr a chance to rethink the way she writes,

revising things that come too easily to reach a more profound solution.

'It's taken me awhile to find my voice,' she says. 'I can see a real change in the process from the beginning. Now I'm writing less about confrontational issues and more about open-ended questions.'

And that can be scary.

'I feel like I'm in a searching place, sometimes I get so scared,' Starr says. 'When I was a little kid, I was so passionate Ñ I felt so strongly about little things. Now I'm an adult (she's 27), I can't find that passion and I'm learning to accept that fact. Things will wax and wane. I don't have to be on a political soapbox or have a broken heart all the time.'

She's learned to live in the moment and relax, she says, though that may not be apparent watching her on stage.

'I'm a person who dwells a lot in the past and worries about the future,' she says with a sigh. 'I'm learning to connect with who I am right now and make the most of that.'

Starr credits Clay Jones, an old friend from college, with getting her in the writing groove when he produced her first album, 'Pinwheels,' in 1993.

'He was the first person to challenge me musically,' she says. 'He made me a lot of tapes like the Red House Painters, Shabadoo, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I was stuck listening to familiar folk singers I was comfortable with. He was my first mentor, and I put him in my contract (to produce) with Geffen Records.'

When Geffen Records was sold, Starr found herself rudderless, much like labelmate Aimee Mann, who founded her own label after being cast adrift. Starr persevered and eventually was picked up by Back Porch Records.

Starr's connection with Earle dates to a time when she was a gofer for Arctic Records in Memphis, Tenn., which was the old Stax Records organization. Through Earle's gal Friday, Elisa Sanders, Earle became a fan. He was upset when he learned that she was making her latest record without him.

'How come nobody asked me if I wanted to be involved? I can make a Garrison Starr record,' he reportedly told them. Earle then assumed some production duties on a couple of songs from 'Take-off.'

Starr was thrilled: 'Steve has a wonderful ear; he took several songs and turned them around. I hated 'At the Heart of This Thing' until he slowed it down.'

Starr played her first gig with Earle last week, with Earle's brother Pat playing drums.

As for the future, Starr plans to stretch herself musically.

'I was watching the best 'Austin City Limits' with Beck the other night,' she says. 'He said he never wants to be comfortable. I'd like to do different genres on my next album. I don't want to get stuck.'

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