Larry Stephenson is one of the best high lead/tenor singers in bluegrass today. He has a voice uncannily like that of Bobby Osborne’s and there can’t be any higher praise than that. Additionally, Osborne is a big fan, readily praising Stephenson’s contributions to the bluegrass genre.
In addition to Stephenson, playing mandolin, there are contributions from his then band members Dustin Benson (guitar, and lead and harmony vocals), Aaron McDarris (banjo, and lead and harmony vocals), with guest appearances by Sonya Isaacs (harmony vocals), Warren Goad (bass vocals), Ben Surratt (harmony vocals), Missy Raines (acoustic bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddles).
Stephenson picked the songs on Thankful, using his collection of about 3000 LPs as a source for a good few of the great songs among the round dozen in this collection. Old or new, the songs fit together well, thematically following the message of the title track.
Stephenson’s voice soars really high, pitch perfect, in the opening few bars of the first track, How High Is That Mountain, a new Jerry Salley song, and he sustains that elevated standard as the banjo and guitar push it on. Salley and Stephenson co-wrote the inspirational Open Up The Window. It relates the experience of some children terminally with cancer, who touchingly share their story of visions of the Angels that will come soon to take them away. Sonya Isaacs’ harmonizing helps add to the emotiveness, as does the deft fiddle playing. It’s soul searching stuff!
The title track is a little-known Louvin Brothers song, not surprisingly accompanied by guitar and mandolin supporting sibling-like harmonies.
A couple of songs are from the home of Good Home Grown Music, in other words, Dixie and Tom T. Hall. Lord It’s a Hard Road Home has Surratt and Goad harmonizing on the chorus and some with background humming. The second is specially written by the couple, with assistance from Stephenson, in memory of Larry’s recently departed mother, a happy mother’s day tribute, Every Day Is Mother’s Day.
When I Get Home and Weary Pilgrim Welcome Home are both new songs, the latter written by Barry Clevenger, the banjo player in the West Virginia band 2nd Generation. It is performed in a traditional Gospel quartet style. The former, by Tonya Lowman, a talented songwriter from North Carolina, bears all the hallmarks of a great old sacred song, although done in a contemporary style. Both are notable for the deep and resonant bass singing.
Stephenson mixes it up very well with Press On O’ Pilgrim, from Jim & Jesse, and Washed In The Blood Of The Lamb, right out of the Baptist Hymnal, showing that he recognizes good older material. I Need The Prayers “of those I love” is an old country song that Stephenson has been listening to for many years. Fiddles are prominent here, along with very tasteful banjo work and great harmonies on the choruses. Set Another Place At The Table “the rest of the family’s coming home” is an old Lewis Family song, with banjo well to the fore and a need lead guitar break. It provokes images of The Last Supper.
The sedate closing song, May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You, is an old Eddy Arnold song that Larry sings solo with a minimum of instrumental accompaniment.
Thankful is a thought-provoking collection of sacred songs done mainly in the traditional mode. Stephenson sings effortlessly and smoothly throughout. The ‘band’ is solid and the arrangements are interesting and variable. Stephenson demonstrates his deep affinity with sacred material and this CD confirms his status alongside the best of bluegrass Gospel singers.
I spoke to Larry about this CD and enquired what religion means to him. Here is his response‚Ä¶..
“Religion is very important to my wife and I. We attend a small Baptist church here in Cottontown, Tennessee, and enjoy it very much. Gospel music has always been a part of my life, in and out of bluegrass. It’s such a big part of bluegrass music and think that’s why all four of our gospel CDs are still in print.”
The album hits the streets on Tuesday [March 18], and audio samples can be found on the Pinecastle site.