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Larry Stephenson

What Really Matters – 2012 (Compass)

Reviewed by Larry Stephens

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CDs by Larry Stephenson

Larry Stephenson has been an important figure in bluegrass for decades and always surrounds himself with a top-notch band.

His latest, "What Really Matters, is no exception. Stephenson sings the high lead and harmony vocals and plays mandolin. Kevin Richardson plays guitar and sings both lead and harmony; Kenny Ingram sings harmony and plays Sonny Osborne's 1966 Vega banjo and Danny Stewart plays bass and adds bass vocals. Aubrey Haynie guests on fiddle. They provide the expert instrumentation everyone expects of a bluegrass band.

While some groups seem to be searching for new audiences with songs that push the Monroe bluegrass envelope, Stephenson stays firmly rooted in tradition, including bluegrass numbers, a southern gospel number that's no stranger to bluegrass crowds and some songs that cross back and forth with country music.

Two gospel numbers are included. On The Jericho Road is a great Speer Family song with the band giving a lesson in harmony singing on it. God Will is a Stephenson original, but has the earmarks of a great number in the southern gospel tradition.

There's a nod to Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys' J. D. Crowe days with a hard driving Bear Tracks, and they go way back in time with Woody Guthrie's Philadelphia Lawyer featuring a guest appearance by Sam Bush.

Stephenson reached out to a variety of excellent composers including Merle Haggard (The Seashores of Old Mexico), Randall Hylton (My Heart Is On The Mend), Ronnie Reno (Big Train), Harley Allen (What Really Matters) and Wayland Holyfield/Dickey Lee (The Blues Don't Care Who's Got Em). Even Hall of Fame announcer (and Johnson Boys fiddler) Eddie Stubbs gets into the act, co-authoring (with Stephenson) the last verse to You're Too Easy To Remember.

The CD closes with a great country hit (for Loretta Lynn), Before I'm Over You with guests on the steel guitar, danelectro bass and snare drum. While bluegrass purists sometimes shiver at the snare and steel guitar, this is as pretty a song as you'll ever hear. Larry Stephenson has put out his share of great music and this CD ranks at the top of the list.