If you’re looking for clear, high lead vocals in today’s bluegrass community, one of the first voices to come to mind likely will be Larry Stephenson. Stephenson has been producing quality traditional bluegrass music for close to forty years – almost thirty of those with his own Larry Stephenson Band. The latest release from the group, Weep Little Willow, is their third album for Stephenson’s Whysper Dream Music. It’s a solid mixture of newer songs from top bluegrass songwriters and tracks pulled from classic artists like Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman.
The album opens with Yesterday’s Gone, a song that was originally written and recorded by 1960s British folk-pop duo Chad & Jeremy. It’s been added to a number of bluegrass and country repertoires since then, however, and the Larry Stephenson Band provides a fine mid-tempo version with crisp harmonies. It does retain a bit of a sixties feel – think the Osborne Brothers, who recorded the song in 1965. The Delmore Brothers’ Midnight Train takes it back a little farther, to what some folks refer to as “pre-bluegrass.” Stephenson makes sure his cut is firmly in the bluegrass world – with Kenny Ingram’s commanding banjo setting the song’s tone, and tasty fiddle from guest Aubrey Haynie, it’s one of the more driving tracks on the album.
Mac Wiseman’s Free Me From This Old Chain Gang, a strong “prison song,” is one of the album’s highlights. It’s sung from the perspective of a man who has finally made it back to the woman he loves after several years on a chain gang. There’s a story to be told here – with a bit of a twist to it – and Stephenson ensures listeners are hanging on until the last verse. Nail My Shoes to the Floor, from Bill Anderson, offers an alternative to the traditional rambling number. It’s a well-written song that finds the singer begging his wife to do whatever she can to keep him at home: “I’ve spent the better part of my life walking in and out of yours… now something tells me you won’t let me leave but one more time, so before my feet start walking, tie ‘em down.” Stephenson adds a fun mandolin line to the song.
The album’s title track, Weep Little Willow, is a tearjerker penned by Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley, bringing to mind Patches, another of Stephenson’s signature songs. The tale of a young girl living on the streets and a kind stranger that offers her help, it suits Stephenson’s voice well. He fills the song with tenderness and a gentle spirit, fitting the lyrics nicely. Ruby’s Purse is sure to bring memories rushing in. Set to Ingram’s smoothly rolling banjo, it’s a tribute to an object that can sum up many a beloved grandma – a big purse filled with everything from “Band-Aids to crayons to hard candy” and “a First Baptist Church Sunday prayer list.”
The band gives a classic country feel to Randall Hylton’s It Almost Feels Like Love. The group’s tight harmonies are on display here, as is Ingram’s sense of taste and timing. Also enjoyable is Sweet Little Darling (Don’t You Cry), a new number with a classic sound written by Billy Smith and Jon Weisberger. There’s a bit of Jimmy Martin swagger to the song, and a nice guitar solo from Kevin Richardson.
Weep Little Willow is a characteristically strong effort from the Larry Stephenson Band, with a fine selection of songs and solid instrumental performances from Stephenson, Ingram, Richardson, and bass player Matt Wright. Much of the album has a throwback vibe, as if the group was channeling bluegrass bands of the fifties and sixties – definitely a good thing, in my opinion. Stephenson has a firm grip on the traditional style, and he and his band put it on full display here.
For more information on the Larry Stephenson Band, visit them online at www.larrystephensonband.com. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.