Larry Stephenson,
20th Anniversary
(Pinecastle, 2009)

When this CD came out, singer and mandolinist Larry Stephenson was marking two decades as a professional bluegrass performer. (His first gig was with the fondly recalled, long-vanished Bill Harrell & the Virginians.) Among the many hundreds playing it more or less fulltime, few bluegrassers -- I estimate no more than five -- are reasonably famous outside the genre. If Stephenson is not in that select company, those who follow the music unanimously acknowledge his contribution to fine bluegrass, and his CDs are always eminently enjoyable.

On 20th Anniversary some members of bluegrass royalty join him in celebration. They include two of the above-mentioned five (Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs) as well as revered practitioners Sonny Osborne, Dale Ann Bradley, Dudley Connell, the duo Dailey & Vincent and more. Married honkytonkers Marty Stuart and Connie Smith appear twice on one song, James O'Gwynn's "Talk to Me, Lonesome Heart," the subject of cuts 2 and 13, done first in bluegrass, second in country, style. Too often, too many guest stars, however well intentioned, merely make a mess of an album, but here everybody is in sync, possibly because the bluegrass world is a small one and everybody not only knows everybody else but has probably performed together on a festival stage at one time or another.

Like Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers (the latter a particularly audible influence), Stephenson traffics in hard-driving, rooted bluegrass whose origins in the mountains and lowlands of Appalachia even a listener of minimal musical literacy could detect immediately. He also sings in a heart-stopping high tenor of the kind Monroe, who invented bluegrass in the 1940s, brought to the genre.

On top of that, Stephenson has a sharply honed taste in songs. In addition to bows to foundational figures such as Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, the Osbornes and Mac Wiseman, he picks some tasteful obscurities, for example Merle Haggard's terrific "Shelly's Winter Love," a cut from a 1970s Haggard LP I would have thought only I recalled. If decent enough, "Traveling Kind" may not be among Steve Young's most memorable compositions -- after all, this is the man responsible for "Lonesome, On'ry & Mean" and "Seven Bridges Road" -- but it is easily translatable into bluegrass, which may have been Young's intention all along, and to Stephenson's exhilaratingly propulsive treatment.

Another cut covers Wiseman's "The Bluebirds are Singing for Me," one of the loveliest bluegrass ballads ever written. Though I've never seen this noted elsewhere, it is clearly a reimagining of "The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee," a late-19th-century parlor ballad often mistaken for a Southern folk song, best known from Charlie Poole's influential 1925 recording and later covered by John Prine among others. The melody isn't the same, nor are the lyrics, but it's exactly the same story.

If you have the good sense to love hard-core bluegrass -- in other words, the unadulterated rural, in-the-tradition stuff -- Larry Stephenson's 20th Anniversary will have you celebrating with him.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 January 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new