No beating around the bush. Larry Stephenson’s latest CD is the most surprising and one of the very best projects I’ve heard so far this year.
When Larry’s name is on the label, you know just what to expect for your money: Straight-ahead bluegrass with a first-generation feel, a high lonesome tenor that’s among the best in the business and some hot picking.
That’s all here on What Really Matters (Compass Records). In fact, it’s a textbook bluegrass album – a train song, a couple of Gospel tunes with powerful harmonies, a jilted lover murder ballad, a duet and a rip-roaring instrumental, all laced with hot licks on traditional bluegrass instruments.
But the surprises are what elevate this project from solid to one of the gems of Larry’s catalog.
That duet, for example, isn’t just any duet. It’s a remake of Woody Guthrie’s Philadelphia Lawyer, with Sam Bush’s pleasantly rough-around-the-edges baritone pairing pleasantly with Larry’s elegant tenor. Sam adds a solid effort on fiddle, to boot. The 2013 IBMA awards show in Raleigh, N.C., is a long way off, but don’t be surprised if this song ends up making noise in the recorded event category. It’s that good.
The duet is also evidence of another surprise – wonderful outside-the-box song selection that underscores the comfortable working relationship Larry has with co-producer Ben Surratt. Others that stand out are Seashores of Old Mexico, a Merle Haggard number, and a swinging, honky-tonk rendition of Before I’m Over You that closes the album and features steel guitar, percussion and a spot-on walking bass line from Danny Stewart. Both songs take the listener back to a time when bluegrass and country music were close relatives, not the world’s apart genres they are now.
Even the presence of a Jimmy Martin song is a surprise. The surprise isn’t that there is a Jimmy Martin song, mind you, because Larry’s music is a direct descendant of Jimmy’s work with Paul Williams. The surprise is the particular song: Bear Tracks, an off-to-the-races instrumental.
Song after song here remind me that Kenny Ingram deserves more recognition for his banjo picking, which is supplemented on most of the project with just-right fiddling by Aubrey Haynie and tasty guitar work from Kevin Richardson.
What Really Matters will appeal to both traditionalists and genre benders, because Larry Stephenson and his band have reminded us once again that what really matters is the music. And the music here is sublime.