When the itch to form and lead his own band finally led him to leave the relative security of the high-profile Cardinals, the relationship with Webco was a welcome safety net.
"Webco was a small, very independent label getting started at the time, and I was just glad that somebody would let me record for them. I was trying to get started at the time with my band, and the label changed hands a couple different times, when John and Bill Emerson took over the label, and Bill Emerson was a very close friend of mine and a mentor, and I just kind of hung in there with them. I didn't have any offers from anybody else. They kind of let me do what I wanted, and we put records out, they were getting some attention, and I was trying to get my band going all at the same time."
When Webco was bought out in the late 1980s, any misgivings Stephenson might have had were soon calmed when he talked with the new owner, Pinecastle founder Tom Riggs.
"He told me that one of the reasons he had bought the label was because of me. It was like switching labels, and I was thrilled to death that Mr. Riggs bought the label, and here I am...I'm still with them. I like it. To me, it's as good as any label out there. He's a good honest man. He treats us all fairly, and I have a great relationship with him, almost like a second father in some ways. He's been very, very good to me, not only in the music, but (also) out of the music. I respect him for what he's done, and I don't have any reason to leave, I'm very happy with him."
Not only has Stephenson continued to nurture a lasting bond with Pinecastle, but he's benefited from the ongoing relationship between the label and Tom T. Hall, who along with his wife and songwriting partner Dixie penned two songs, including the title track, on the new disc. Having the Halls involved in bluegrass, he gleefully agrees, is good for both him and the music.
"Absolutely. They've dove into this bluegrass music thing headfirst here in the last four or five years with a lot of great songs. I managed to get what I think are two of their better ones. I really, really like 'Clinch Mountain Mystery', the title track, and of course, 'The Pretty Blue Dress', and they're just classic Tom T. and Dixie Hall 'story songs'. I was just thrilled to death that they passed them along to us, and (the songs) seem to be doing well. People like them."
The album features heavyweight guest appearances by the superlative guitarist Bryan Sutton, along with fiddle work by both "old master" Bobby Hicks and "young gun" Ronnie Stewart, but Stephenson is emphatic in saying that his current band - Aaron McDaris on banjo, Randy Barnes on bass and Dustin Benson on guitar - is as good as he's ever had. He knows, though, from personal experience - on both sides of the issue - that band turnover is an inevitable part of the business.
"It is unfortunate, but it's just part of the game we play, being a bandleader. I wish they could stay forever, but I look back on my career and, you know, I didn't do that. I stayed with Bill Harrell four or five years, the Bluegrass Cardinals five or six years, and you know, (sometimes) it's just time for a change. But I hope these guys will hang in there for a while."
Even with the demands of running his own show - including a half-dozen or more Opry appearances per year, as well as an active festival and concert schedule - Stephenson has found time to work in other high profile projects like the White House "supergroup" album he did last year with Dave Parmley, Charlie Cushman, Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band) and Missy Raines.
And, over the last two years, he had the opportunity to perform with the four surviving original members of the Seldom Scene as the "Seldom Seniors." It was a lot of fun, but also daunting, in that he was trying to fill the hole left by the late, great John Duffey. He made it clear from the beginning that he, least of all, expected to be what Duffey was.
"I had a lot of talks with Tom Gray, John Starling, Mike Auldridge and Ben Eldridge about that and I said, 'Look guys, I can only be myself,' and they were fine with that, and I think the audiences were too. I heard a few little rumbles here and there, but you know, even those guys, we're talking 30 years ago that they put that band together. So I mean, even they're different now. I did the best I could, and they seemed to be happy with it, and that's all that really matters. I think for the most part it went really well...And it worked. People were hiring us. We were making good money, and we were having a ball, or I was, anyway. It was just an absolute ball to get to work with those guys."
After 30 years, Stephenson believes that the music hasn't changed all that much, but the bluegrass profession has become just that - a profession.
"It's taken more seriously now. It's a business now, and I think the bands that are out here working the road now and traveling, treat it as a business, and it's not just something we do on weekends for fun, you know, 'let's get a couple cases of beer and go out and play, and have a big time.' It's a business for us now, and we treat it as a business...Between the merchandising and keeping the bus going and keeping the band together and getting songs together to record, it is a full time job. I feel like I've worked pretty hard over the years to get to this point, where this is all I do, and I'm enjoying it very much."