Larry Stephenson’s “20th Anniversary” album has guest stars galore, but it isn’t a showcase for musical egos or gimmicky duos. Rather, what impressed me about this album is the ensemble quality of each cut; while Larry Stephenson’s high (and I do mean high) tenor is the most prominent feature of the album, he pulls back to sing harmony on several tracks, letting the vocal blend speak to his talents and confidence as a singer and bandleader.
While the album opens up with “Teardrop Town,” classic, clean, and tight bluegrass, the very next track takes us into a twin-fiddle country sound, with Connie Smith and Marty Stuart joining but not dominating the song. Ricky Skaggs joins LS for the Monroe classic “My Old Kentucky and You,” staying close to the original in the instrumental arrangement while spicing it up a bit. On the other hand, after hearing LS’s rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love,” I could hardly believe it hadn’t always been a bluegrass song. This is one of the album’s strongest tracks, which not only turns a country hit into a convincing bluegrass song, but illustrates another strength of the arranging throughout the project: tempos which allow for drive and emotional content to the vocals, without feeling rushed and speedy for speed’s sake.
“Give This Message To Your Heart”
Remember I said that LS pulls back to allow the ensemble quality to shine? The first five tracks don’t have a single mandolin break, and LS is a mandolin player. There are exactly three mandolin breaks on the entire CD, and they’re all short and to the point. To me, this says that he was looking for the unique quality of each song, rather than opportunities to show off. On the other hand, the guitar player, Kevin Richardson, whom I’m hearing for the first time on this album, has a strong melodic presence which is more than a bunch of notes and licks; he puts in what’s needed, and no more. As a young player I predict Kevin will have a great career in bluegrass bands. Kristin Scott Benson is strong on banjo, but is not a regular part of the Larry Stephenson band.
To me, Larry Stephenson’s voice has a quivering, longing characteristic, which provides an aching quality to blended vocals but can be a bit thin and nasal on its own–which is actually part of his charisma as a musician, coming across as authentic rather than studied. He lets Dudley Connell and Del McCoury take the lead vocals on different tracks, soaring over them (even Del!) in high harmony; it’s impressive when a bandleader lets others step forward and uses his talents to make them sound great.
The one track which didn’t really work for me was the gospel song”You’ll See Jesus.” Perhaps it’s a personal bias, but the religious songs which really work for me are the ones with some edge, which acknowledge suffering and speak to an urgent need for hope. This song seems a bit too sweet and self-conscious, both in message and music, but then again, I’m probably not the intended audience of contemporary gospel. It just didn’t play to LS’s strengths, which are amply demonstrated by the next track, the bluegrass classic “Muleskinner Blues,” which showed just how much drive, edge and steady beat LS can put into a song.
The album concludes with “Talk To Me Lonesome Heart,” with Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, along with drums and steel guitar. It works, and doesn’t sound out of place, which leads me to conclude this: Larry Stephenson, job well done, and let’s look forward to another 20 years.