For many bluegrass groups these days, a stop in Johnson City, Tennessee, isn’t complete without visits to both East Tennessee State University and The Down Home. ETSU frequently welcomes guest artists to its Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, and the famed Down Home has played host to most of the top bands in the bluegrass business since the mid-1970s. The Larry Stephenson Band was in the Tri-Cities yesterday (February 6), stopping in for a short performance and discussion with a Bluegrass Seminar course, and then following it up with a concert at the Down Home.
ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music students are surely familiar with Stephenson’s work – the band’s bass player, Danny Stewart, is a graduate of and current adjunct instructor in the program there, and the guitar player, Colby Laney, is also a former student – but they were treated to a more in-depth look at the careers and experiences of Stephenson and his band mates during the group’s visit to campus. As Stephenson jokingly made reference during his concert later in the evening, most of the students weren’t even born when he and banjo man Kenny Ingram began their careers in the 1970s. For a group that often hears about artists like Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, and the Bluegrass Cardinals in their history classes, it was definitely interesting to hear stories from men who actually played with them.
There was also a more practical side to the discussion. Many of the students in ETSU’s program are just beginning to learn what a career in the bluegrass world might be like, and all of the band members offered advice on the best routes to take. Stewart and Laney, who were both still students when they began playing with Stephenson, talked about balancing a career on the road with being in school, while Stephenson discussed some of the challenges of running a successful bluegrass band. Stephenson’s advice to the students? Find good musicians that are responsible, on time, and easy to get along with, and you can’t go wrong.
At the concert, Stephenson proved that he speaks from experience as his band played two tight sets that earned them a standing ovation from the crowd. Larry’s clear high lead and tenor vocals were in fine form on such fan favorites as Knoxville Girl, Clinch Mountain Mystery, and the classic country tearjerker, Patches. There were a few numbers from Stephenson’s most recent album, including the title track, What Really Matters, and the Gospel quartet On the Jericho Road. Stewart, who rarely joins in on the singing, added some nice bass vocals to the song, earning cheers from his students and friends in the audience.
Ingram might not be as well-known as a few other banjo players, but he proved once again that he is one of the best. His 1966 Vega banjo, custom-made for Sonny Osborne, had a great classic sound on tunes like Shuckin’ the Corn, a driving instrumental version of Little Maggie, and (fittingly) a few old Osborne Brothers numbers, including Big Spike Hammer (featuring excellent Bobby Osborne-style lead vocals from Stephenson) and Me and My Old Banjo. Stewart and Laney were also spot-on throughout the concert, providing solid, steady bass work and Tony Rice-inspired guitar, respectively.
The Larry Stephenson Band is celebrating its 25th year of great traditional bluegrass in 2014, with the official “anniversary” of the band on February 10 – the date of the original group’s first practice in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. For more information on LSB, visit their website at www.larrystephensonband.com.