Larry Stephenson Band Celebrates 20 Years with Star-Studded Anniversary Album

By Nancy Cardwell

Larry Stephenson’s appropriately titled album, 20th Anniversary, hit the streets this past February as the popular bluegrass band celebrated two decades of success.

Larry Stephenson

Larry Stephenson

The recording is the first release on the artist’s new label, Whysper Dream Music, named for Larry and Dreama Stephenson’s daughter, Falon Whysper. [The CD was originally released by Pinecastle Records, the North Carolina-based bluegrass label headed up by Colonel Tom Riggs. Due to diabetes-related complications, Riggs is unable to remain at the helm of the label and made the decision to close the business in February. The label’s retail arm, Music Shed, will continue to sell music by Pinecastle artists, as well as a number of other bluegrass titles.]

The cover of the new album, designed by Larry’s wife, Dreama, pictures a marquis announcing the Larry Stephenson Band with a list of guests including Dudley Connell, Sonny Osborne, David Parmley, Ronnie Reno, Aubrey Haynie, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Del McCoury, Dailey & Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley. A music festival on compact disc, the new album contains a set of 13 songs written by Randall Hylton, Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, Sonny Osborne, Mac Wiseman, Charlie & Ira Louvin, Bobby Osborne & Pete Goble, Eddy Raven, and Jimmie Rodgers, among others.

Co-produced with Ben Surratt, the instrumental core of the group is the Larry Stephenson Band, featuring Kevin Richardson on guitar, Kristin Scott Benson (now with the Grascals) and Kenny Ingram on banjo, Jason Barie and Aubrey Haynie on fiddles (Adam Haynes is the current fiddler), Kyle Perkins on bass (who has since been replaced by Danny Stewart from the East Tennessee State University bluegrass program), and Stephenson on mandolin. The project took 16 months to complete, but the attention to detail shows in the final mix.

“We cut the songs first and then we thought, ‘Who would be good for this?’ It just sort of took on a life of its own. We picked some songs and threw out some songs, and just went from there. I don’t think anybody told us no. We cut ‘Talk To Me, Lonesome Heart’ and we could have called any number of female singers, but I really wanted Connie Smith.” Connie and Larry split lead vocals on the track; Connie on tenor and Marty Stuart on baritone, and they decided to cut the song a second time as a country shuffle. They brought Kyle Perkins in to play walking bass, Robby Turner played steel guitar, Jerry Kimbrough added the “tick tack” Danelectro bass, and Jason Barie contributed twin fiddles. WSM’s Eddie Stubbs is “playing the heck out of the single,” Larry says. “He’s wearing it out.”

Several of the guests on his new CD are folks who Larry has performed with or known for years in the music business. For four and a half years (1983-’88), Larry shared the stage with David and Don Parmley in one of the classic lineups of the Bluegrass Cardinals. “I love singing with David,” Larry says. “He’s a great harmony singer, and I picked out a couple of things that would fit him well.” David sings low tenor in the trio with Larry and Kevin Richardson on the Randall Hylton song, “Teardrop Town.” Parmley also joins Dale Ann Bradley and Larry in an unforgettable trio (complete with a signature Osborne Brothers-style vocal ending) for “This Heart Of Mine (Can Never Say Goodbye),” penned by Bobby Osborne and Pete Goble. Bluegrass Hall of Famer Sonny Osborne came out of retirement to record with Larry a song he wrote, “Me And My Old Banjo.” Sonny sings lead on the chorus and Ronnie Reno, a former member of the Osborne Brothers, handles the baritone part. Kristin Scott Benson, a banjo protégé of Sonny, captures her mentor’s classic five-string style.

Ronnie Reno, co-founder of BlueHighways TV, sang on a Merle Haggard chestnut, “Shelly’s Winter Love” (an appropriate call since Ronnie toured with Haggard for years, singing and playing guitar). Larry ran into Ricky Skaggs, one night, shopping at Kroger in Hendersonville, Tenn., and asked him if he would sing a duet on the project. “We went to his studio in Hendersonville and cut the Bill Monroe song ‘My Old Kentucky And You.’”

Larry sings lead most of the time in his own band, but for this project, he settled on the high harmony part for several cuts. “I like singing tenor with a good, strong lead singer where I can just rare back and sing tenor.” Dudley Connell takes the lead on a song from Mac Wiseman’s repertoire, “The Bluebirds Singing For Me,” a song Larry grew up singing with his father, the late Edwin Stephenson. “I met Dudley about the time the Johnson Mountain Boys started,” Larry recalls. “I was working with Bill Harrell in 1979 and met Eddie Stubbs and Dudley and the whole crew. Then when I went to work with the Bluegrass Cardinals, Lance LeRoy was booking us and the Johnson Mountain Boys, so we worked a lot a lot of dates together. When I left the Bluegrass Cardinals in ’88, the Johnson Mountain Boys were splitting up about that time. Dudley wasn’t doing anything and I wasn’t doing anything, so we went out and did dates together.”

Larry and Dudley performed 10 or 12 dates in 1988-’89 in the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area. The two old friends also recorded together on the Hay Holler classic bluegrass album set entitled Shine, Hallelujah, Shine, in a group called simply The Bluegrass Band. Produced by banjo player Butch Robins and joined by David McLaughlin, the group recorded two gospel volumes and a third set of bluegrass standards.

Two-time IBMA Entertainers Of The Year Dailey & Vincent join Stephenson for “Give This Message To Your Heart,” written by Charlie & Ira Louvin. “I always loved the Osborne Brothers version of this song,” Larry says. “It had Bobby and Sonny with Ira Louvin on the top. I recorded the song several years ago with Don and David Parmley, and I thought maybe we could re-create it with Jamie Dailey on that high part.”

Larry and Del McCoury switch off on lead and tenor on “Have You Come To Say Goodbye,” another Louvin Brothers composition. “I knew Del and Jean and all the family when they were living in Glen Rock, Pa., and I was working with Bill Harrell in the early ’80s,” Larry says. “We worked many, many dates with those guys. Rob and Ronnie weren’t playing yet. That makes me feel really old,” he laughs. “I’m sure glad he said yes to me on that song.”

Larry says he’s been trying to get Aubrey Haynie on his records for ten years. When Jason Barie left the band before the project was completed, it was the perfect time to give him a call. “I met Aubrey when he was around 11 years old in Florida, and his family would bring him and his brothers out to see us play with Bill Harrell and the Cardinals. I remember him very well when he was about 15 or 16, playing with different groups and in contests. He’s one of the best in the world and a good guy. He really knows how to play these kinds of songs. He’s studied the music.”

The twelfth cut on the album is the evergreen “Mule Skinner Blues,” an often requested song, and one that he recorded previously on the Once More from the Top album with the Bluegrass Band. “I’ve been singing it for about ten years onstage, so we cut it live in the studio,” Larry says. “There are hardly any overdubs on it, if at all. We didn’t cut it more than three times, and we had it. We were trying to get that ‘stage’ feel.”

“When I started singing I was eight or nine and I sang through the roof, real high like a kid. Then my voice started changing and I didn’t sing for a couple of years. When I finally came back singing again at 14 or 15, it was still high. That’s just where it’s always been. It stayed up there.” Larry was introduced to bluegrass by his older brother, Lester, who brought home Bill Monroe and Jim & Jesse albums. Larry’s father, Edwin, who worked in road construction and as a mechanic, also played a bit of everything. In fact, he played guitar with Larry in his first high school band.

“Growing up in Virginia, living between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, [Va.], the music was everywhere, and it was such a good time to be there throughout the ’60s and in the ’70s, when I got old enough to start finding it on the radio,” Larry says. “There were shows everywhere. It was an awesome era. Daddy took me to Berryville and to Culpeper and to the Take It Easy Ranch in Callaway, Maryland—all those great old festivals. I got to see all the first generation bluegrassers.”

Thinking back, Larry says it doesn’t seem possible twenty years have gone by since he called his first band rehearsal in February 1989, in Pilot Mountain, N.C., with Rick Allred, Marc Keller, and Doug Campbell. “In March of that year, we played our first date in Columbus, Ohio. Bill Emerson played banjo,” Larry remembers. Over the years, Larry says he’s had eleven guitar players, five banjo players, ten bass players, three fiddle players and around twenty others who were fill-ins. “It’s gone by pretty quick,” he says.

There have been a number of high points, but overall, he says, “I’m proud of the fact that I can make my living playing bluegrass music, but I’m not going to say it didn’t come without sacrifice, whether it be marriages or not having kids or working odd jobs here and there to make it work.” In addition to leading the band, Larry has worked part-time at a music store, as a chaffeur, and sold and serviced fire extinguishers for a while. He also owned a bus garage in Nashville with David Parmley, Ronnie Reno, and Del McCoury in the early ’90s.

Moving to the Nashville area in April 1992 was a pivotal point for Stephenson. “I’d only had my band together about three years, so I was just kind of plugging along with it. I came here for other reasons and ended up staying. I got my foot in the door at the Grand Ole Opry and did a lot of dates there in the ’90s. We did a lot of TV shows and I was inducted into the Virginia Music Hall Of Fame in 1996. I don’t think any of that would have happened if I hadn’t moved here.”

The hardest thing about leading a band for the past twenty years, Larry says, is dealing with personnel changes. “That’s discouraging, but I have to say in every case when someone has left me, the change usually ended up being good, whether it’s about their playing, their singing, or their personality and attitude.”

As for the best part? “I just like the music,” he states simply. “I grew up with it. I’ve got it in me. It’s a part of me. I almost hate to say it’s who I am, but I guess it is. I just love the music when it’s clicking along and right, and you’ve got a big crowd. It’s an awfully good feeling.”

Before he led his own group, Larry was a sideman for some of the best in the business, and he learned some things along the way. He was inspired by Cliff Waldron’s ability to find new material from other genres of music. From Bill Harrell, Larry learned how to run a band as a business. “Bill got up every morning and had his cup of tea, and he went downstairs to his office and got on the phone,” he remembers. ““He kept us busy. People liked him. I saw him sit at that record table all day and talk to people and laugh and sign autographs, and that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to get out there amongst everybody.”

Being a member of the Bluegrass Cardinals made him grow as a vocalist, with complex harmony arrangements that had to be just right. “After being there about a year and a half, my voice settled in and quit cracking and carrying on and I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ It’s a muscle I had to exercise to get it up there.”

During the next twenty years, Larry says, “I just want to be a part of everything, as far as the music goes. I still enjoy it, all the aspects of everything I do. I still do my own booking. I get out and wash the bus and drive the bus. I’m not afraid to set up my own record table. The ego is not so big that I can’t do that kind of stuff,” he laughs. “It’s my name on the band and people want to talk to me. I don’t mind sitting out there at that record table and selling product.”
To new bands just starting out, Larry advises, “It can be done. It’s just like anything else you do. You’ve got to work hard and hang in there. Don’t give it a year or two and quit. It’s a lot of sacrifice. The price of gas is so much higher now, and you’ve got to get your price in order to make it all work. It’s been twenty years, but I still feel like I’m building. I’ve done well, but I’m not done yet. I’m not satisfied. I’ve got a great band right now. We’re having a lot of fun, and I think this is a great record.”

Larry and his wife, Dreama, have been married ten years, and their daughter, Falon Whysper Sidney Stephenson, is one-year-old. “She loves music,” Larry says. “We play ‘Give This Message To Your Heart’ with Dailey & Vincent when we want to get her to go to sleep. I don’t know if it’s the high pitch of the singing or what, but she will just stare at the speakers and calm down.” Like most new fathers, having a child has changed the way he looks at everything. One of his biggest goals is to “still be around when Falon’s looking back at the first twenty years of her career, whatever that may be,” he smiles. Dreama, a photographer, graphic designer, Web site designer, and beauty consultant for BeautiControl products has designed the last five of Larry’s CDs and has taken his band photos for ten years.

Larry Stephenson continues to think about how to market his music to new audiences as he heads into the future. There’s a lot more to be accomplished, and he’s willing to put in the work. “I’m just happy to be a part of this great music. I love what I do, and it’s a great community of people. Bluegrass people are special. They’ve sure been good to me.”

Nancy Cardwell is the special projects director for IBMA and a member of the board of trustees for the International Bluegrass Music Museum. She freelances as a bass player and singer.

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