LARRY STEPHENSON, WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Larry Stephenson’s latest is one of those recordings that refreshes you like a breezy cool front on the heels of a torturous heat wave. Making it go are Stephenson’s distinctive tenor lead, which continues to mellow gracefully, and his thirty-plus years in the business, which has given him (along with co-producer Ben Surratt) not only an ear for selecting great songs, but also the understanding of how to make those tunes his own.
At the core here is a sound that would be at home among the greats of the late ’50s and early ’60s, one that blends, as was the hallmark of much of the bluegrass at that time, traditional bluegrass with honky-tonk country, enlivened with melodic touches of pop music. To be sure Stephenson has, on the one hand, also programmed a few straight traditional-sounding numbers such as his rollicking vocal duet with Sam Bush (who also adds his fiddle) on “Philadelphia Lawyer,” and the buoyant quartet gospel number, “On The Jericho Road,” and has, on the other hand, included a couple of tunes that sound of a later vintage. Merle Haggard’s “The Seashores Of Old Mexico,” with its “Gentle On My Mind” rhythm and descending chord lines, exemplifies the latter.
Mostly, however, when Stephenson and banjoist Kenny Ingram, bassist Danny Stewart and guitarist Kevin Richardson dive into the positive messages of “My Heart Is On The Mend” and Randall Hylton’s “What Really Matters,” or the slow gorgeous country of “You’re Too Easy To Remember,” or into Ronnie Reno’s fast-moving “Big Train” and the classic and equally fast instrumental “Bear Tracks,” you’re going to think of the Osborne Brothers and of Bill Harrell and all the classic sides of that era. Perhaps most impressive is that this recording doesn’t sound like a museum piece. Stephenson and the band make the music sound vibrant and relevant. As stated above, you’ll be refreshed. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)BW