Monday, July 2, 2012

CD REVIEW - Larry Stephenson - What Really Matters

By: W.J. Hallock

Larry Stephenson - What Really Matters

Compass Records
Released: June, 2012

An old Irish friend of mine from Belfast used to tell me: “Remember son, there’s just no substitute for class.” That thought kept popping into my head as I listened to Larry Stephenson’s new CD, “What Really Matters.” There is not one thing about this CD that isn’t first class, the song selection, the musicianship, the harmonies, the production, the packaging, the liner notes and photos.

ALL of it! It just doesn’t get any better than this folks…. And the reason is, it’s energy is all focused to surround and support THAT voice. That voice that is the very essence of bluegrass COOL. There is not a note out of tune, or out of time, not an inflection that isn’t necessary and the raw emotion is as thick and palpable as whipped cream. No braggadocio, just an honest down to earth conveyance of feeling.

After several listening's, I did my usual internet search and You Tube excursion, which further cemented some of my audio visions with video evidence. Larry has that same low key, no wasted movement, calm, friendly, assured demeanor live, on stage, that he also has in his voice on this CD. Not a hair out of place, tailored suits that fit just right, a stage presence that is strong, but not ego driven, and a thousand watt smile that he easily presents to the crowd, the camera and his band mates. Larry looks bluegrass cool, too.

But, I have to admit, I’ve been a fan for a long while now. The first Larry Stephenson song that ever reached out and grabbed me by the ears was “Knoxville Boy.” What a great song and what a great performance. Then I discovered “Many Hills Of Time” and “Clinch Mountain Mystery.” I still haven’t decided which of this CD’s songs is my favorite. It could be the Ronnie Reno penned “Big Train,” that here absolutely sizzles! Or the Wayland Holyfield/Dickey Lee tune “The Blues Don’t Care Who’s Got ‘Em.” Or…… let me think about this some more…..

The afore mentioned “energy,” in this band is provided by three of the most gifted pickers in bluegrass music today. Not only does Danny Stewart handle upright bass, he’s also the bands bass singer. Their four part harmony on the old gospel number “On The Jericho Road” shows him off! The lead vocals on it are handled by guitarist Kevin Richardson. Another strong vocal performance. Kevin’s guitar work here is either hot as a pistol or sweet and pretty. Listen to his solos on “Bear Tracks,” the Jimmy Martin/J.D. Crowe instrumental, and you’ll know what I mean. The focus of this song is banjo player de-luxe, Kenny Ingram, who has to be one of the top five banjo men alive today. And as a plus, through the generosity of Sonny Osborne, Kenny plays the ‘66 Vega Custom banjo that Sonny played on all those old Osborne Brothers hits. What a GREAT sound. And Kenny makes it sound wonderful. Nostalgia at it’s best. If I had one wish, I’d wish that Larry would play some more mandolin….. he is the singer, yes, but his playing is an asset he could show off a little more. These four players are a cohesive, solid unit that is the very foundation for those super vocals to build on. Strength in small numbers.

The songs that Larry, the band and co-producer extraordinaire, Ben Surratt, picked for this project are a wide swath of varied sounds and feels. Straight ahead bluegrass plus some Merle and some Woody Guthrie. The title song, “What Really Matters,” by the late Harley Allen and John Wiggins obviously means a lot to Larry…. and he sings his heart out on it. Only one original song by Larry is on this CD. And the strength and power that comes from “God Will,” makes me wonder why Larry isn’t showcasing his own songs more. This is song-writing at it’s best.

Guest musicians are Sam Bush on fiddle and singing lead on “Philadelphia Lawyer,” A-list fiddler Aubrey Haynie, who shines on those twin fiddle parts, steel guitar player Robby Turner (WHAT? A steel guitar?), Dan Electro bassist Jerry Kimbrough and drummer Rob Crawford (What? What?). The final song on “What Really Matters” is an old sounding swing tune, “Before I’m Over You,” that makes the most of these last three men. What a great way to add some spice to this project! And a real departure from the rest of the songs. Is this really a one time event, or are Larry and Compass Records leaving bread crumbs that they know we’ll follow to a full CD of Larry singing COUNTRY? As far ranging as Compass is in their artist roster, and as good a singer as Larry Stephenson is, he could certainly do it, as evidenced here.

And as long as I’m thinking ahead, what about a whole CD of Larry and Del McCoury duets”? As good as they sounded together on Larry’s “20th Anniversary “ CD doing “Have You Come To Say Goodbye,” I’d sure buy it! And wouldn’t THAT be cool? They could call the CD “Two cool dudes!” Yep….. this one needs to be in your collection, too.


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