There was a time when, inexplicably, I didn’t enjoy Larry Stephenson’s music. I can’t actually identify what provided the negative impression, although it may have been the cheesy quality of the album art on the first album of his I encountered, On Fire. Whatever the reason, as I got increasingly involved in the bluegrass world, more often than not I simply ignored Stephenson and his music.
Once again, time has been kind to me as I’ve come to appreciate Stephenson’s soaring tenor and well-crafted albums. Although the title track never became beloved, his Clinch Mountain Mystery evolved into a favourite, as did the follow-up, Life Stories. Thankful received even more plays than those previous albums and his celebratory 20th Anniversary has become a much appreciated download.
Not only does Larry Stephenson’s voice impress me- it is an emotionally communicative one, as equally well suited to fast-paced tunes of frivolity as it is to heartfelt tales of anguish- but his mandolin skills sound top-notch on every recording. Further, he does an above average job of selecting songs.
Therefore it is no surprise that I am finding his recently released What Really Matters to be an album that is holding up to frequent listening. Whereas his previous album was a star-studded extravaganza, one which was suitably awarded an IBMA award in 2010, the new album primarily features the touring Stephenson band.
The near-legendary Kenny Ingram is on 5-string, Kevin Richardson handles the guitar, and Danny Stewart the bass. Aubrey Haynie contributes fiddle while Sam Bush does the same on Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer,” which Bush sings with Stephenson.
Each of the four core performers sing harmony with Stephenson stepping aside for Richardson to sing lead “On the Jericho Road.” The album’s final cut, “Before I’m Over You,” features a more substantial line-up with steel guitar, snare, and electric bass being included from guest musicians and reveals Stephenson’s Osborne Brothers influences.
Ingram is allowed to use “Bear Tracks” as a showcase of his talents, but this familiar Jimmy Martin tune isn’t the only one on which Big K shines. Ingram provides solid backing throughout, of course, but his contributions to the Merle Haggard outlaw song “The Shores of Old Mexico” and “My Heart Is On the Mend” are noteworthy. “My Heart Is On the Mend,” a Randall Hylton song, features an outstanding arrangement with powerful fiddle accenting the drive that seems to be simultaneously powered by banjo, bass, and mandolin. Predictably, these two are also among the most vocally satisfying.
Among the other highlights are “The Blues Don’t Care Who’s Got ‘Em,” on which Stephenson could be mistaken for Bobby Osborne, the easy going, sentimental title track, and Ronnie Reno’s vibrant “Big Train.”
Recorded last October with Ben Surratt again manning the dials, What Really Matters is another in a succession of very strong albums from one of bluegrass music’s sweetest tenor singers, Larry Stephenson.