Larry Stephenson Band,
Pull Your Savior In
(Whysper Dream, 2014)

Veteran Larry Stephenson, who has always championed bluegrass' foundational sound, returns to the hard stuff on Pull Your Savior In. On this occasion the subject matter is the gospel message, the first time that's been so since 2007's Thankful (see my review in this space on 10 May 2008).

A singer/mandolinist who's been leading his own outfit for more than two decades, Stephenson commands the talent and experience sufficient to create albums that are all but reviewer-proof. The only imaginable complaint concerns the material he chooses to record, which once in a while, not often, feels a tad weak in the knees. I doubt, though, that anyone will dispute the robust quality of the hymns and gospel numbers captured here. It's the sort of record you might hand to someone who's asked you what you like about Larry Stephenson's music.

The full range of his performer's virtues is in evidence, among them his keen, Bobby Osborne-inflected tenor, his top-flight band (besides Stephenson, three members, augmented by fiddler Aubrey Haynie) and the gang's soulful harmonies. The dozen cuts cover both standards (opening with an amazingly graceful vocal-quartet reading of "Amazing Grace") and less familiar songs. Only one, the title tune, is a Stephenson original.

Christian songs, of course, are all expositions on one fundamental theological proposition. Novelty is reserved for the metaphors (if any) that push the sermons forward. So it's satisfying to encounter a particularly colorful example, the venerable folk hymn "Great Speckled Bird." Ever since I heard it on a Roy Acuff album many years ago, it has never failed to impress me as just plain weird, conjuring up an image not of the Bible (as we're supposed to think) but of a gigantic flying monster -- maybe Rodan -- terrifying onlookers in a low-budget 1950s science-fiction flick. The melody, however, is as commonplace as any in country music, best known from "Wild Side of Life" (Hank Thompson) and its sequel "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (Kitty Wells), the two most-remembered country hits of 1952. It originally belonged to "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," a 19th-century parlor ballad later popularized by the Carter Family. Stephenson's arrangement of "Bird" preserves the song it all its fantastical splendor.

"How Great Thou Art," a long-dead Swedish poet's lyrics set to a native folk tune, has not lost its capacity to propel the listener's consciousness beyond the confines of the terrestrial quotidian. Even in mediocre renderings (e.g., the ones I heard as a kid in small-town Lutheran churches) its rolling melody and interstellar vistas manage to engender awe. Stephenson and band convincingly embrace the grand theme of a God not just of the world but of all worlds. Though more earthbound, "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," a traditional song fashioned around the image of a sturdy lighthouse and struggling sailors, is just as entrancing.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 November 2014

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