june 2012

larry stephenson
Larry Stephenson: vivid evocations of the essentials in life

Places In the Heart

By David McGee

larry stephensonWHAT REALLY MATTERS
Larry Stephenson
Compass Records

To declare Larry Stephenson’s What Really Matters the best album of his laudable 20-year solo career is a dicey proposition, given the high standard of traditional bluegrass picking and singing marking all of his long players, especially his 2010 IBMA award winning 20th Anniversary album. But in his liner notes he writes of the “wonderful life” he’s had with his wife Dreama, and adds: “…then our miracle came along (our daughter) and now I see what really matters.” (His italics.)

Larry Stephenson, ‘What Really Matters,’ at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival (Preston, CT), June 1, 2012, with Kenny Ingram (banjo), Danny Stewart, Jr. (bass) and Colby Laney (guitar).

Better than “best album,” then, let’s say What Really Matters is clearly Stephenson’s deepest, most soulful effort for the very reasons the artist cites in his liners--it’s about places in the heart, by and large, and his gift is to make those places vivid for a listener. Always an effective singer, with some Del McCoury and Doyle Lawson both in his clear, plaintive tenor, Stephenson knocks one vocal after another out of the park here: on the midtempo album opener “My Heart Is On the Mend” he adopts a suitably balanced and upbeat perspective in declaring his recovery from a bad breakup (with a nice bit of understatement in his delivery of the wry lyric, “the blues has been a problem/I think I’ve found a way to solve ‘em”); on the loping Harley Allen-John Wiggins title track, he’s positively buoyant over his newfound embrace of love, family and friendship over material possessions; on the Wayland Holyfield-Dickey Lee heartbreaker, “The Blues Don’t Care Who’s Got ‘Em,” he delivers an affecting tear-stained lament to a heartless significant other; on Ronnie Reno’s bustling “Big Train,” he leads a hard charging arrangement with an exuberant vocal plea to the steel rail to “bring my baby back to me”; and needless to say, he’s outstanding in the reverence and conviction he brings to two gospel numbers, leading a quartet on his somber, self-penned “God Will” testimonial, and alternating stirring leads with his bandmate Kevin Richardson on “Jericho Road.”

Vintage Larry Stephenson Band, 1991, performing a bluegrass version of the Cascades’ classic 1962 hit, ‘Rhythm of the Rain.’ Band members include Dale Vanderpool (banjo), Shannon Slaughter (guitar) and Tom Feller (bass), with Stephenson handling the lead vocal and mandolin.

Stephenson’s basic band here is comprised of his reliable road warriors Kevin Richardson (guitar), Kenny Ingram (banjo) and Danny Stewart (acoustic bass), with Stephenson himself of course handling the mandolin chores with his usual impeccable taste and precision picking. Ingram has a terrific banjo showcase in the driving “Bear Tracks,” an instrumental courtesy Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe, which is also an occasion for guest fiddler Aubrey Haynie to light up the track with some furious fiddling. As is his wont, Haynie stands out whenever he shows up--letting out a poignant cry on “The Blues Don’t Care Who’s Got ‘Em”; playing sweet, sad fills on the aching ode to lost love, “You’re Too Easy to Remember”; joining Ingram in leading the trundling charge of “Big Train.” Not the least of the guests sitting in is Sam Bush, who makes the most of his lone appearance on the album. On a sprightly treatment of Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer,” Bush takes a sturdy co-lead vocal with Stephenson on Woody’s tale of the ill-fated divorce lawyer who plots to marry “a Hollywood maid” after he’s secured her divorce, only to be shot dead by her jealous husband who overhears the barrister speaking sweet nothings to the gal. Bush supplements his exuberant vocal with some lively fiddling to boot in a spirited bluegrass treatment right on time for Guthrie’s Centennial celebration. Whether What Really Matters follows 20th Anniversary into the IBMA winner’s circle is for others to decide; regardless, it’s one of this year’s finest traditional bluegrass albums, and moreover, one of the essentials in Stephenson’s impressive catalog.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024