ix years can be a long time for just about anything, but in the music business, it can be an eternity. Careers can flash brightly, then quickly recede forever into darkness, all in the space of a year or two. Taking a break of a half-dozen years between albums can be a sure-fire guarantee of "has-been" status for most performers. Yet that's exactly what the Stevens Sisters, natives of the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee did.
Their new Rounder release, "Little By Little" is the next, long-awaited step in following up their critically acclaimed 1996 debut (also on Rounder) "Sisters."
It's not that Beth and April Stevens haven't been musically active since "Sisters" made them instant stars on Americana stations across the country.
Whether performing as the Stevens Sisters or with their parents Doug and Betty Stevens as the Stevens Family band, their distinctive combination of multi-instrumental talents and breathtaking Tennessee harmonies have made them welcome guests on folk and bluegrass stages around the country, and a heavy touring schedule has kept them out in front of an enthusiastic public.
"Yeah, we've been touring," says April, "My mother isn't touring an more, but my father is touring, and we have a dobro player, my brother, and a bass player. So, it's pretty interesting. We take our families on the road with us, which is a good thing, I think, because we don't have to leave them behind and feel like we're neglecting them. So, that's a good thing."
They've toured with John Anderson, the Bellamy Brothers and Gene Watson. "We've been doing the Opry quite a bit. I think we've done about 30 shows at the Grand Ole Opry, so we've been doing a lot of things like that...and doing projects with Dolly (Parton, of course). We're going to be on her new CD."
Still, when it came to getting into the studio for a follow-up album, April admits that they may have gotten their wires crossed with the folks at Rounder.
"I'd say that was kind of a miscommunication...between the record company and ourselves."
Rounder executive Ken Irwin says miscommunication may have concerned musical direction. The intent going into the recording was a more bluegrass oriented album, instead of a countrier sound that resulted. Nevertheless, Irwin is quite pleased with the music.
More importantly, though, there was the matter of making the new album - whenever it came about - an accurate musical statement of how far the sisters had come in those six years.
"Basically, I think it was just coming up with the right songs. We just wanted it to be as good as the 'Sisters' album'...it was one of the Top Ten on the Americana chart, and we just wanted to make this one as good or better, and I think a lot of it had to do with choosing the right material and timing."
"Material" is the key word. While firmly rooted in bluegrass, "Sisters" was notable for the opportunity Beth and April seized to demonstrate not only their ability to stylishly mix in rock, blues and jazz influences, but to also spread their own wings as songwriters and arrangers.
Half of the dozen songs on "Sisters" were written or co-written by one or both of the sisters.
So, of course, it would be a sure bet that "Little By Little" would feature at least as many, if not more Stevens originals, right?
Well, not exactly.
The new album, also 12 tracks, contains nary a song written by either Beth or April. Instead, they've indulged their eclectic tastes for songs by some of their favorite writers and bands, including striking versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" and Barry and Holly Tashian's "Don't Kneel At My Graveside."
April is quick to say that they've continued to write their own songs, but that doesn't necessarily mean they automatically make it onto the next album.
"We did not write too many for this project. We did (write some), but it didn't fit with our other choices, so we wanted everything to kind of coincide with each other, and we are not the kind of people who, just because we wrote a song, necessarily...need to sing it, and if there's something better that someone else has written (then we'll record that)...So, we both left a lot of the writing this time to a lot of our people that we employ...like Shawn Camp. He wrote 'Walk On By,' and he also wrote 'If I'm ' Gonna Be Lonely', along with Kim Richey. She wrote 'Run To The Well,' and she also wrote 'Those Words We Said.'"
"Run To The Well" (co-written by Irene Kelley) stands out in particular as a song well-suited to the Stevens' talents, a song that speaks to perseverance in the face of continuing adversity. It tells of a long, hot, dry summer, and a wildfire that threatens the crops that provide the family livelihood and sustenance.
"We enjoy story songs, and we like the meaning of the song, because whenever you...search for answers, you can run to the well like they did, and I just love (Richey's) writing style, and she also wrote several songs that we do on our stage show. We enjoy her albums as well as her writing. She does a lot of other material that we like as an artist."