Black Music Matters Festival

"Little by Little," the Stevens Sisters are finally back

By John Lupton, May 2002

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Another of the many strengths of "Little By Little," as on the first album, is the first-rate supporting cast: Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Gary Davis, Byron House, Al Perkins, Mike Henderson and Larry Atamanuik. And, of course, father Doug Stevens, who lends harmony vocals.

Dolly sits in for a turn on her own song, "I'll Never Say Goodbye," and they almost sound like triplets. While the Stevenses and Partons hail from the same Smoky Mountain homeland, they're not blood kin, but that's not to say that the musical bloodlines aren't readily apparent.

The Sisters' hometown of Hampton, in Carter County is close to the extreme eastern tip of the state, about as far from Nashville as you can get and still be in Tennessee. It's a part of the country that's always been the home of fiercely independent folks.

During the Civil War, it remained one of the most staunchly pro-Union regions, isolated from the surrounding Confederacy, and that independence of spirit has lived on in the music and musicians of the present day.

Like their forebears who carved out their lives in the rugged Smokys, and like their musical cousin, the redoubtable Dolly, Beth and April Stevens would simply prefer to do things their way. They were born and raised in the cradle of the country music business, and April regards it as not only a heritage, but a musical birthright.

"I feel that it's just a part of this area, bluegrass music and country music...with the Carter Family, and all of those folks, and I just feel that's one of the reasons it's been around so long."

School and family also occupied the six years between the two albums as well. When "Sisters" was released, April was still in college, and Beth was a young wife and mother. Both sisters attended East Tennessee State University, where Beth was among the early graduates of the first-of-its-kind, four-year degree program in bluegrass.

April started out as an English major, then switched to sociology before graduating. She laughs, perhaps a little enviously, at the image of her older sister sitting in a jam session at school and being able to say, with a straight face, "I'm doing my homework."

For April, the last few years brought marriage and motherhood. Her three-year old son can be heard in the background as she talks from her home, still in Hampton, where she can be close to her parents and siblings, and maintain as much of a "normal" lifestyle as possible despite a heavy schedule.

Like her colleagues in the world of bluegrass and Americana music, she's thrilled by the recent attention garnered to the music by the overwhelming success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou," and while she's well aware that previous "breakthroughs" of roots music into the public consciousness have tended to fade after a while, she sees signs that this time it will have more staying power.

"Well, I hope it's here to stay, and I think it's made a larger impact this time, with all the Grammys, and all the CMA's and ACM's that 'O Brother' has won. That's the big one, and that's the groundbreaker...I know that it's caused a larger crowd of people to see the shows...younger people being at the shows...I notice a younger audience coming to bluegrass now...It is a different kind of music, and people (are) really ready for something fresh, new and different because they've had the same thing all their lives."

April is also thrilled with not only the increasing acceptance of women in bluegrass over the last decade, but also the rise of the Americana format that has opened new doors to women who don't fit into the pre-packaged, cookie-cutter molds that mainstream country and pop are so set on nowadays.

"Oh yeah, I really feel that way, and I really feel that's one reason...our show's doing well on CMT, getting out there and having that kind of alternative sound opening up the doors for women."

"Now we do one hit that's on...'Sisters', and 'Little By Little' both...the bluegrass audience then was not as open minded, so we had to keep it pretty traditional, (but) now we can do a lot of these things,...different kinds of music."

And, finally, April promises that it won't be another six years between albums. Appreciative of the relationship they've enjoyed with Rounder, she and Beth are already planning the next release.

"We had songs written for the last one that would probably make it onto this we've got enough for an album on our hands...hopefully, we'll have another album out next year."