Having a Coffee with…… Larry Stephenson 

This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love.  

Larry Stephenson is instantly recognizable for his crystal-clear tenor voice, one that has been attracting plaudits since the mid-to-late 1970s when he worked with Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass and, later, with Leon Morris. 

Stephenson was born in Harrisonburg, VA, and grew up in King George, VA.

Prior to those early years as a professional musician, he had, with the help of his father, learned to play his primary instrument, the mandolin, at the age of five, and when at the age of 13 he cut this first record, two sides cut with his father were released on the Lark label. 

His love of bluegrass music was sustained through to high school where he started his first band, Larry Stephenson and the New Grass. In the Fall of 1975 they recorded another single and an LP of contemporaneous standards, both were released on the Major Recording Co. label. 

After graduating he indulged in the riches that northern Virginia and Washington DC had to offer which included the cutting-edge bands The Country Gentlemen and, later, The Seldom Scene, as well as traditional bluegrass and old-time music.

From 1979 to 1983 he worked with Bill Harrell’s band, The Virginians, and from 1983 to 1988 he was a member of the Bluegrass Cardinals; in both positions Stephenson’s profile was raised.  So much so that he formed the Larry Stephenson Band in 1989. 

But this is getting ahead of myself; in fall of 1981 Stephenson recorded an album, Sweet Sunny South (originally on the Outlet label, later as a CD on the Webco label) released under his own name. 

On March 6, 1988, Stephenson appeared with another young up-coming bluegrass talent, Mark Newton, at Mr. B’s. Family Restaurant, Massapenax, VA.   Subsequently, a 2-LP set of recordings from that evening’s performances was released; Live at Mr. B’s (B’s BRLP-1). 

From the release of the LP Every Time I Sing a Love Song, also released in 1988, to 1994 Webco released six of his CDs. 

Also in 1989 Stephenson played in the re-formed The Bluegrass Band, a bluegrass super-group that had four LPs, two secular and two Gospel, sold via telemarketing. 

Before the turn of the century Webco released three CDs of re-issued material also, I See God : A retrospective of Larry’s greatest Gospel recordings, included.

Subsequently, Stephenson recorded for Pinecastle Records and that label released six more albums, culminating in a Gospel release Thankful (PRC 1161, March 2008). 

In June 2008 the label released a DVD The Larry Stephenson Band: In Concert at Cypress Gardens (with footage from 1996) also.

In 2003 Stephenson, along with fellow-residents of White House, TN, David Parmley (guitar, lead vocals), Missy Raines (bass), Jason Carter (violin) and Charlie Cushman (banjo), formed another bluegrass super-group. They released one album, the eponymously-titled White House, in 2003. 

When Pinecastle Records folded in February 2010 due to owner Tom Rigg’s health problems, Stephenson and his wife Dreama started their own record label Whysper Dream Music. They have released three CDs the first of which was 20th Anniversary (WDM 7425, February 2010). 

In 2012 he released What Really Matters on Compass Records.

Stephenson has won numerous Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) awards; five as Male Vocalist of the Year (2001, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008); two as Mandolin Player of the Year (2012 and 2017); one each for Recorded Event of the Year for Give This Message to Your Heart from his 20th Anniversary album (2010), and Album of The Year for Pull Your Savior In (2015).  

This year (2018) Stephenson will be inducted into the SPBGMA Hall of Greats.

Additionally, in 2006 Stephenson won the IBMA Album of the Year award for his participation in Celebration of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer and in 2010 he won the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year for Give This Message to Your Heart, w/ Dailey and Vincent (as found on the 20th Anniversary CD).

Stephenson is a member of the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, being inducted in 1996. 

What would you like to drink? 

“I’ll have a cup of coffee with half & half and Splenda.”

Do you want anything to eat as well? 

“How about something sweet….. any Little Debbie or Hostess cakes would do.”

What’s your favorite food?  

“A good roast beef meal, mashed potatoes, green beans… but I love shrimp!”

And what would you have to drink with that? 

“Sweet tea, no lemon or a diet green tea.”

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had? 

“That’s hard to say, I’ve had many. When I travel, I always plan our eating stops. There’s a great Mexican place in Albuquerque, NM. We’ve stopped there many times over the years. The Palm in Nashville, TN, is wonderful, Casey Jones in Jackson, TN, and whenever we’re in Missouri, we always stop at Lambert’s Café. I also love a good breakfast….Cracker Barrel, Waffle House. My mother-in-law’s house for the holidays can’t be beat.

Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music? 

“My older brother brought home some of the first bluegrass records I remember hearing. Jim & Jesse, Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman. My Dad played a little and taught me mandolin when I was five. Growing up in King George, just north of Richmond, there were many great radio stations to listen to, and live concerts. In the late 1960s (when I was around 10) my Dad took me to many of the original bluegrass festivals….Culpepper, VA; Berryville, VA; Camp Springs, NC; Calloway, MD. Saw all the first generation except Flatt & Scruggs and Carter Stanley.”

Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for? 

“The Sound That Set My Soul On Fire

It’s about the first time I heard the song Rocky Top. I would have been 11 and a friend played that Decca 45 for me by The Osborne Brothers and it pretty much changed my life. I was hooked not only on bluegrass but The Osborne Brothers. 

I’ve written a couple of Gospel songs I’m very proud of…God Will and Pull Your Savior In.”

What about a song written by someone else? 

“There are so many great writers. Donna Ulisse & Rick Stanley wrote Come to Jesus Moment. Jerry Salley and Susanne Johnson wrote Ruby’s Purse. Two of my favorites. Pete Goble wrote The Many Hills Of Time. It’s been a good song for us from my early days of the band. But, one of my all-time favorite songs is My Favorite Memory written by Darrell Statler and sung by The Osborne Brothers. I’ve never recorded it because the Osbornes did it as good as it will ever be done. As you can tell, I lean a lot towards the ballads.”

Which particular album do you like best and why? 

“Now that’s a very hard question to answer. Anything by the Country Gentlemen, Cliff Waldron and The Osborne Brothers. 

Growing up in Northern Virginia, I’ve always been a fan of The Country Gentlemen. Then I discovered Cliff Waldron. I worked with Cliff in 1977 for about a year and loved him and his music and you just can’t go wrong with Osborne Brothers records. One of the things that attracted me to those artists was their material. They did standards as we know them, but they also got material from country, rock and roll, blues and others. When I was younger, I thought many of those songs came from bluegrass, like Fox on The Run or Ruby

I set for hours in front of my Mom and Dad’s stereo playing and singing with those records.”

What’s your favorite bluegrass Gospel project of all time and why? 

“I have two….Calling My Children Home by The Country Gentlemen and Favorite Hymns by The Osborne Brothers. 

The Gentleman were always known for their Gospel music but there was something special about Calling My Children Home for me. Charlie Waller, Bill Yates, Doyle Lawson and James Bailey….great songs with great voices. Little did we know at the time that Doyle would go on and do the great Gospel music with his own band. 

After hearing the Osborne’s for many years singing their classic bluegrass songs and then here comes a great Gospel album with Gospel classics like What A Friend We Have In Jesus, How Great Thy Art, Crying Holy was just wonderful. These were songs I was singing in church as a young boy. As I got older I realized they were singing them also as young boys. Great songs with great artists that will stand the test of time!”

You play a mandolin …. …

“My mandolin is made by Buddy Davis. He lived around Winchester, Virginia, and passed away a couple of years ago. Of course, it called a Davis and I got it in March of 1982. It’s the only mandolin I’ve used since 1982 both on stage and record and is by far my favorite instrument.”

What’s your favorite bluegrass memory? 

“Playing guitar with The Osborne Brothers on the Grand Ole Opry. Singing tenor with Jesse McReynolds. Singing tenor and playing mandolin with the original Seldom Scene for a couple of years. Singing tenor with Charlie Waller. I been blessed and so very fortunate just to have a career in bluegrass music. The older I get the more I realize just how fortunate I’ve been to see and hear what I have since the mid-1960s. I could go on and on with this question.”

How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road? 

“I’ve always taken care of my body and never abused it. No drugs, never smoked and very little alcohol. Try my best to eat well, but that can be hard at times. Everything in moderation, I guess.”

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow? 

Larry Stephenson at home - photo by Dreama Stephenson

“Yes, I am. Been a sports fan as far back as I can remember. Big Washington Redskin fan. Lived in Virginia in the heyday of the Redskins. We have season tickets for the Tennessee Titans and I follow just about all sports. Really like college basketball.”

What hobbies do you have? 

“I guess it’s music! If I’m not playing music, I’m talking music or listening to music. Even worked in a music store for about five years. I have about 5000 LPs in my collection and there’s so much great music on those LPs.

I also own the bus we travel in. I’ve always liked buses and being around them. We’re called ‘Bus Nuts.’ I do as much work on my bus as I can. I enjoy that time.”

What is the last movie/film that you watched? 

“My wife and daughter and I went to see The Star over the holidays. It’s an animated movie about the birth of Jesus. My favorite movie is Legends Of The Fall. It’s about a Montana family in the early 20th century. Dad and three brothers. Very close family, the sons go off to war and one didn’t make it. The other two return home and fall for the same girl and the family is destroyed. There’s parts of that movie I can relate to, not the destroyed part!”

Do you get much time to watch TV?  

“Yes, probably too much. I’m a news-aholic, always have been. I like knowing what’s going on in the world and around me. Also watch a lot of sports. That’s about it. A good movie every now and then.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music? 

“Bluegrass music has been my life and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve had a few odd jobs here and there but at this point in my life it would probably have something to do with buses, or maybe, a cook at Waffle House.”

Larry Stephenson now lives in Cottontown, Tennessee, just north of Nashville.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.