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Larry Stephenson weaves a mystery

By John Lupton, June 2004

At 47, Larry Stephenson is probably more surprised than anyone to realize it, but the recent release of his latest Pinecastle project "Clinch Mountain Mystery" marks not only his 15th year with the Florida-based bluegrass specialty label, but also pretty darn close to the completion of three full decades as a professional bluegrass performer.

It all began, he relates from his current home in the Nashville area, with his father, Edwin Stephenson.

"I was born in Harrisonburg, Va., and I grew up over in King George County, Va., just the other side of Fredericksburg...My dad played and sang, he was from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, over in the Harrisonburg area, and his family played and sang at barn dances and different things when he was a kid. When I was five years old, he put a mandolin in my hand, and I've been at it ever since."

His father's musical career was, by comparison, informal and sporadic, at least until Larry began taking music seriously.

"He never did nothing really organized until I was in high school. We had a band together in that region of Virginia, in Maryland, the North Carolina area, and we played together four or five years, but that was really the only organized band he ever played in."

It was natural for Stephenson, as a pre-teen, to be emulating the "high lonesome" sound as a vocalist, especially when he discovered a role model in the distinctive high lead and tenor vocals of Bobby Osborne, who with his brother Sonny remains one of the "First Generation" of bluegrass pioneers.

"Well, being a kid, you know, at five years old, on up to seven, eight, nine years old, I was just playing the mandolin and just beltin' out songs just as loud and as hard as I could belt them out, and of course, I had a high voice. When I discovered the Osborne Brothers, when 'Rocky Top' first came out, I just fell in love with that sound and especially Bobby's voice and everything. Then I went through the period of time there in my early teens where my voice changed, and when it changed, it stayed high. I was always a fan of that particular style of singing in that high lead, and the tenor singing and mandolin playing, they seemed to go together. I guess I was just destined to be that way and just always loved what the Osborne Brothers put out there."

As the years rolled on, there were frequent comparisons between Stephenson and Osborne, but when it's suggested that the similarities are more along the lines of style and approach than actual vocal characteristics, Stephenson is quick to agree.

"If I had a quarter for every time there's been that comparison, I'd probably have a ton of money, but I don't really feel like we sound alike either. It's just the style that we sing in, and the influence is definitely there because I listened to them a lot, and I like those slow, trio ballad songs - I've recorded a lot of them over the years. I don't try to copy anything they've done...But I never really thought I sounded like him either because I think he's one of the greatest singers that ever sung a song, and I'm certainly not there, yet."

Like more than a few of his generation of bluegrass professionals, Stephenson's "college" was the road, and his lecture halls were the stages and bus rides he shared with the veteran band leaders he worked for after graduating high school.

"When I got out of high school, I went to work for Cliff (Waldron) for about a year, and that was in about 1977. We were doing a lot of gospel music at the time. Then, we started doing some of his older New Shades of Grass material from the 70s, worked around the Washington, DC area and did a little traveling... In 1978, I worked with a guy named Leon Morris, out of the Washington, DC area. We were really just playing local clubs and things, and I met Bill Harrell through Leon. Bill had a four-piece band (the Virginians) at the time, and I went to work with Bill in January 1979 and stayed with him for 4 1/2 years."

He left Harrell's band to join the Bluegrass Cardinals for the next five-plus years, led by the father/son team of Don and David Parmley. David would become a lifelong friend and collaborator - including producing "Clinch Mountain Mystery."

"David and I go way back. He produced some of my early Webco things. We had an album out a couple of years ago on Pinecastle, the 'Heavenward Bound' gospel CD, and he produced that also. David and I are good friends, and we see each other a lot, and he lives close to me here in Tennessee. He's got a good ear, and he works well in the studio. I just chose to use him and got him back for this (project)."

It was during his tenure with Harrell that Stephenson recorded his first solo effort, "Sweet Sunny South" on the Virginia-based Outlet label, later acquired by the Webco label, which at one point was owned by banjo legend Bill Emerson and his brother John.

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