By C. Eric Banister, March 2008
arry Stephenson has a lot to be grateful for. The 51-year old bluegrass veteran celebrates his 19th year as the leader of his own band this year and will also mark his 19th year with Pinecastle Records with the release of "Thankful."
Stephenson started his career as a teenager playing around his native Virginia with his father before joining Bill Harrell and His Virginians in 1979. After four years with Harrell, he made the move to the Bluegrass Cardinals where he spent nearly six years as mandolin player and tenor singer.
In 1989, he made the decision to strike out on his own forming the Larry Stephenson Band and releasing his first solo album on the Webco label, which was later bought by Tom Riggs of Pinecastle.
His newest all-gospel release, his fourth of the kind, was actually to be completed nearly three years ago, but was sidelined by a vicious killer.
"I jokingly tell people that the 'Knoxville Boy' kind of showed up and put an end to the gospel album," Stephenson says from his home just north of Nashville in reference to the Tom T. and Dixie Hall song that became a linchpin for his 2006 release "Life Stories."
"We started to record something to follow up 'Clinch Mountain Mystery' with, and I had been way overdue on a gospel album. So, I talked to Pinecastle," he says. "We got in the studio and started recording. When the 'Life Stories' album was cut, it was to be an all-gospel album."
But after hearing more of the Halls' songs, the project changed direction.
"We had three or four tracks cut for a gospel album and decided, well, let's just follow 'Clinch Mountain Mystery' up with another bluegrass record. We kept finding all these really nice story songs, and Tom T. and Dixie sent 'Waiting on the Sun to Shine' and 'The Knoxville Boy.' It just kind of took its own direction, and we put the gospel album on the backburner. Well about a year and a half later, we had these tracks cut and thought, let's get this gospel album finished, so we just went in the studio and finished it up."
In addition to his band, which at the time included banjo player Aaron McDaris and guitar player Dustin Benson, Stephenson brought in a couple of old friends to round out the players calling on bass player Missy Raines and fiddler Shad Cobb.
Unlike many gospel projects, Stephenson decided to include a few originals.
"I think the songs are a little easier to find. There's a lot of great gospel material out here, and a good gospel song can be done many different ways," he says.
But he doesn't limit himself to strictly traditional sources when searching for songs, but always keeping an ear towards what fits the band's sound best.
"I think it's what fits the band, what fits my voice and just coming up with the right material like that old song 'May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.' I've kind of had that song running through my head for years, and I knew I really, really liked it. I researched it, and it kind of fit what I do, and it made a nice song for the album," he explains. "I look in all different directions for songs. A lot of these older songs from the '40s, '50s and '60s are just great songs, and I love that era of music and the way the songs were written a little bit more than the way some of it is written today, the newer things."
Two of the directions Stephenson looked for songs were that of his frequent co-writers Jerry Salley and the Halls, who provided gospel material that honor two venerable bluegrass themes – ailing children and mother.
"I knew Jerry Salley had a lot of gospel stuff, and I went to him," he says. "'Open Up The Window' is a song idea that I had from visiting a children's cancer facility in Baton Rouge, La., Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. They were giving us a tour of that facility. We were playing a festival down there, and the fellow giving the tour mentioned that the kids are so sick, and they know they're not doing well, and some of them tell their parents to open up the windows, and let the angels in. It's really heartbreaking. I took that idea back to Jerry, who's a great friend and great songwriter and written a lot of gospel music over the years, and we wrote that song together."
The Halls and Stephenson have a history dating back three albums.
"We were doing the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree, hosting that – probably been seven or eight years ago (in Nashville), I guess," he remembers. "He (Tom T.) sent his assistant Becky over that night, and she gave me a CD of some songs he had written, I think it was an album he put out or something at the time, and they were just starting to get into the bluegrass writing and getting their songs out to a lot of the bluegrass artists."
"I listened to a few of them, and I remember there wasn't a lot on that particular CD that really interested me, but I called him one day and said, 'hey, I really want to do something, send me some more stuff.' That's when 'Clinch Mountain Mystery' came in and 'Pretty Blue Dress.' We just kind of got to know each other from the International Bluegrass Music Association conventions and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America conventions. He was familiar with me and, of course, I was familiar with him, and it just kind of built over the years, the relationship."