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music: Understated Star

Letterman. London. Rolling Stone. Richmond's half-Jayhawk Stephen McCarthy takes success in stride.

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"I'll probably be rambling 'cause my brain is half gone," McCarthy says, greeting a visitor at the front door of his comfortable bungalow-style, 1930s home on a tree-lined North Side street. Less than 24 hours ago he was in New York playing on "Late Night with David Letterman," but McCarthy is already back in his everyday groove changing diapers and feeding the dogs. There has been precious little time for sleep.

A quick downstairs tour reveals no banks of amps or guitars scattered about. No rock-star memorabilia or evidence of late-night partying. Rather, kids' toys are everywhere. The blues sounds of 1930s singer Lee Wiley and 1960s country star Don Gibson play softly in the background. Much of the furniture is corralled in a side room because of ongoing house additions. Liz and Stephen had long ago hoped to finish the construction. But Jack came along and a phone call from Jayhawks leader Gary Louris threw a wrench into the deal a couple of years back. Louris and McCarthy met in the mid-'80s when McCarthy's Los Angeles-based band, the Long Ryders, was enjoying its run in the United States and England. When the Jayhawks began a return to its original harmonious and rootsy sound, Louris needed someone who could play guitar, pedal steel, lap steel, banjo, dobro and sing harmonies. Mutual friends had suggested he give McCarthy a call some years before when the band was going through personnel changes. Louris took his time but finally decided to make the move.

"I really don't want to come off as a name-dropper," McCarthy says, "but some friends suggested, 'Why don't you call Stephen?' The joke is he called me six years later."

McCarthy was not sure he wanted to leave home after abandoning the rock 'n' roll road several years ago. But eventually he took the offer.

"I thought I really wouldn't tour anymore," he says. "I really didn't want to be gone. My wife was the one who was really pushing me into it, oddly enough."

His Jayhawks status is a bit hazy but McCarthy toured Spain with the band in 2001. When it came time to record the new record in July 2002, McCarthy came aboard for nine of the 14 cuts. In mid-May he played London clubs and BBC shows and the Letterman gig. In June, he was a 'hawk for an Austin City Limits taping and for the ensuing three-week tour of the states to promote the new CD.

"[The band] refers to me as a 'Jayhawk,'" he says. "My wife refers to me as a 'half-Hawk.' I don't really care. I'm able to do other things. So far it's a good mix. … It's not like we're out in Lear jets but they definitely treat me well. Pretty much whenever they play electrically I'm there."

Reflecting on the Letterman experience, McCarthy recalls that he was in New York for 36 hours. He and Liz got a chance to walk the SoHo streets and they bought their son, Jack, green pajamas in Chinatown. When Stephen arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater for rehearsal the day before taping, the Letterman band's generosity surprised him. "Paul Shaffer, I've heard different things about him … but he was great."

The Jayhawks tape segment went off without a hitch when showtime came the next evening. McCarthy kicked in harmonies and lead guitar for the gorgeous "Save It For A Rainy Day" and, just like that, the spotlight dimmed. Stephen and Liz immediately headed by limo to La Guardia for a flight to Richmond. McCarthy still wore his stage makeup. They arrived home in time to watch the band on television.

But all of the excitement is only part of his larger life and McCarthy is clear about what's important.

"I'm not looking to be a star," he says, "[and] it does get harder as you get older when you're in your 40s. It is funny being this age and playing in a band that's touring. … I don't know how long it's gonna last … but it is kinda what I do.

"We may not have everything in the world. But we're happy with what we've got. … You don't really need that much." S

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