Approaching forty years in the business, bluegrass veteran Larry Stephenson has witnessed a lot of the history, as well as made history. His impeccable tenor and lead vocals accompanied by his mastery of the mandolin have garnered him accolades and awards from peers and fans. A self-described modern-day gypsy, Stephenson is a rarity in a profession where many of the musicians hate traveling on the road but love the stage as the destination.
“Sometimes I sleep better on my bus than at home,” Stephenson says. “It’s never really bothered me. I run a bus, so I try to make it as comfortable as possible for everybody. It’s like anything else. It gets a little hectic at times, especially if you’re having some problems with the bus. There’s not a whole lot that I haven’t seen and experienced, but you deal with it and move on. Maybe that comes with age and having a six-year-old, you just kind of deal with things and don’t let it get to you as much as it used to.”
Stephenson has traveled from coast to coast and border to border during his nearly four decades touring, but he would be hard pressed to name a favorite stop along the way. “I kind of like them all, if that makes sense,” he says. “Every venue is different, but they’re all different in a good way, whether it’s a small or large festival. Going places we’ve never been before is always exciting. People may have never seen you or heard you. A lot of them are hearing you on SiriusXM radio these days, but they’ve never seen you. That’s always fun. Sometimes the smaller venues can be as much fun or more fun than a large festival. You have kind of a captive audience. They’re there to see you. You can have a lot of interaction with the audience.”
Wherever he goes these days, the questions that fans want to ask center around that little bundle of joy he and his wife brought into the world six years ago, his daughter Whysper. “I love it,” Stephenson says, beaming with pride. “I love everything about it. It’s been a good life change, and it’s made us both very happy. We’re enjoying her very much. She’s going to be a superstar one day, right?” He playfully asks his daughter, who is sitting in the floor near him. Already, the bluegrass icon is developing in her an appreciation for the music, placing a mandolin in her hands at roughly the age he started. “I got her plucking on it a little bit. Her fingers are so little that she can’t push the strings down right now. We’ll get there. She can sing though!”
Larry also credits his daughter with helping him gain a different outlook on life. “I think it’s probably, hopefully, calmed me down a little bit and made me take a look at things a little differently than I used to,” he says. “It kind of puts life in perspective like that song we recorded, ‘What Really Matters.’ I’m doing things now that I never thought I would do, going to tee-ball games and watching her in gymnastics. You’re sitting there taking all that in and it’s fun. That part of it has probably been good for me to get away from all the other crazy stuff that I have to deal with all the time, and enjoy her and what she’s going through.”
When he was a little boy, Larry picked up the mandolin and, by the time he was 13, he had cut his first record, a 45 rpm with his version of the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top” and on the other side a cover of Jim and Jesse McReynolds’ “Somebody Loves You Darling.” For most of his career, he had a label home at Pinecastle Records where he released 18 albums. During that time, fans have fallen in love with signature songs such as “Patches,” “Yes, I See God,” “Many Hills Of Time,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “The Knoxville Boy,” “The Pretty Blue Dress,” “The Violet And The Rose,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and the 2005 SPBGMA Song Of The Year, “Clinch Mountain Mystery.”
SPBGMA also chose him five times as the contemporary Male Vocalist Of The Year and Mandolin Player Of The Year in 2012. He participated on the 2006 IBMA Album Of The Year Celebration Of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer. In 2008, he was one of a group of recipients that won the Recorded Event Of The Year for Everett Lilly & Everybody And Their Brother. He along with Dailey & Vincent won that same award two years later for “Give This Message To Your Heart,” from Stephenson’s 20th Anniversary CD that he co-produced with Ben Surratt. Larry is also a member of the Virginia Country Music Hall Of Fame.
In 2011, Larry released the critically-acclaimed CD, What Really Matters (Compass Records). His passion for gospel music motivated him to record his fifth all-gospel album, Pull Your Savior In, on his own label, Whysper Dream Music. It won Album Of The Year at the SPBGMA Awards in February of this year. “I felt like I needed another gospel record,” he says. “It had been several years since we had one out. The last one was Thankful on Pinecastle Records (2007).
“Being a gospel album, there were several songs I had in mind that I had been wanting to do for a long time that were on the short list. Then, I contacted some writers.” He chose “Come To Jesus Moment” that Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley penned. “I was a little apprehensive about cutting it, because she sang it so well,” Larry admits. “I heard her do it live. We decided to do it. It’s been one of my favorites. It’s really touching folks. It’s a strong song.”
Stephenson covered the Louvin Brothers’ “Born Again” and Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird.” For a special treat, he turned to Country Music Hall Of Famer Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers to sing tenor to his lead on “Amazing Grace” with fellow Bluegrass Cardinal alumni David Parmley. Dale Perry sang baritone and bass to round out the vocal quartet. Larry wrote the title cut “Pull Your Savior In,” which reached the number one position on the bluegrass charts in Singing News magazine.
“I don’t really consider myself much of a songwriter, but I do write a lot of songs,” he said. “It just kind of hit me when I was sitting in church one Sunday morning. The last verse says: I heard the preacher say, all you’ve got to do is learn how to pray. That’s what the preacher was preaching on, learning how to pray. I came home and wrote the second verse. It probably took me several weeks to write it and get it like I wanted it.”
Although Stephenson has been strong in his Christian faith, the desire to sing gospel music may be deeper now than ever. “Maybe that’s my age and maybe it’s having a child,” he reflects. “I don’t know what it is. There’s two or three on this new record that I absolutely love singing. You can see I’m touching people. People might be crying. People might be laughing. You can see the emotions coming out in folks when you do these songs, whether it be at a festival, a church, or concert.”
In fact, in some instances, people tell the bluegrass icon that his music has completely changed their lives. “That’s a little scary right there when people come up and tell you things like that,” he confesses. “I’ve had that happen a lot over the years. Sometimes you’ve driven all night and you’re tired, and you get on stage. You’re worried about keeping your mandolin in tune and what I’m going to say between songs. You want your music to touch people, and it’s pretty humbling when it does.”
The story of the Larry Stephenson Band (LSB) began in March of 1989 in Columbus, Ohio. It was the first gig for Larry’s new band, playing a show for promoter Darrel Adkins, along with the Charlie Sizemore Band and Lost & Found which included Ronnie Bowman. Marc Keller played guitar for Larry, Doug Campbell was on the bass, and Bill Emerson filled in on banjo for Rick Allred, who picked the first couple of years in LSB. “It was pretty nerve wracking,” Larry recalls. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing and whether it was going to fly. It was something new.”
The band worked about 23 dates that inaugural year. “I think all I wanted to do was to be a part of the music scene, a slice of the pie so to speak, and try to book as many dates as I could and record. I don’t know that I had any kind of vision. I just wanted to play music. It was basically all I had ever done. I had a couple of offers to do some other things musically. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give this thing a try.’”
At the time, Stephenson was single and working a day job to support his passion for music. The timing was right to try fronting a band. “I already had two solo albums out at that time,” he remembers. He recorded Sweet Sunny South in 1982 on Outlet Records out of Virginia (now available on Webco Records) and Every Time I Sing A Love Song on Webco Records. “One of them I cut when I was with Bill Harrell; the other one I cut right at the end of the Bluegrass Cardinal days. I kind of had a little bit of a head start with those two solo albums out, because I was getting a lot of airplay. Some of the songs were doing well for me on radio.”
Stephenson started as a touring musician with his dad in the mid-1970s. In 1979, the Harrisonburg, Va., native hit the road with Bill Harrell and the Virginians where he stayed for over four years. Then in 1983, he began a five-year run with what’s considered to be one of the classic lineups of the famed Bluegrass Cardinals. While he was a sideman, Stephenson stood in a perfect position to learn from other bandleaders.
“From Bill Harrell, I learned a lot about the business,” Stephenson said. “Bill was a great businessman. He did his own booking and did booking for other bands. I watched Bill work and how he treated people and his kind ways and his business sense about him. He would get up early in the morning and go downstairs at his house like he was going to work at his office out somewhere driving his car. Bill was really good to his band and treated us with respect. He would buy us meals every now and then. It meant something for him to do that. I try to carry that on too. With the Cardinals, I probably learned more about the music end of things…how to sing and how to build harmonies and putting arrangements of songs together and things like that.”
Now in the role of employer, Larry tries to put those lessons into place. He also has an open-minded approach with his players.
“I’ve always let everybody be themselves,” he adds. “I can’t tell Kenny Ingram that he’s got to play the banjo like Kristin Scott Benson played it, because they’re two totally different players. I’ve never been one to tell anybody what to do and how to do it.”
Besides Ingram on banjo, Kevin Richardson plays guitar, and Matt Wright lays down the groove on bass. “Big K” from Lyles, Tenn., joined the group seven years ago. “Kenny is the real deal,” says Larry. “He knows what this music is supposed to sound like. He knows harmonies. He’s a great singer. When he plays an instrumental on the banjo, it’s played the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s a trooper on the road. He’s always ready to go, always on time. He’s the consummate pro.”
“He’s easy to work with,” Ingram says of his bandleader. Ingram has been playing banjo for over half a century for legendary bluegrass figures like Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin and was with Rhonda Vincent’s band, The Rage, before joining LSB. He’s a good businessman. He knows how to get things done. He’s had a band now for over 25 years and held it together, and he’s had good bands. He keeps pounding it. Anybody that can hold a band together that length of time has to have something on the ball.”
Richardson played with LSB the first time around from July 2008 to March 2012, but left because of his dad’s illness. After his dad passed, he ran his own band, Kevin Richardson and Cutting Edge, for a while before accepting an invitation to rejoin LSB. “Kevin is a great guitar player and a great singer,” says Larry. “He’s a really, really good person, a real family man. I love having him back in the band. He’s better now than he’s ever been since he went out and experienced what a bandleader is like. It wasn’t quite for him, but he gave it a shot. He did pretty good with it actually, and it’s too bad it didn’t work out for him. A guy like that deserves it, but it’s not for everybody. Sometimes guys just need to be told what time the bus leaves, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. I see a difference in Kevin now than the first time he was here—just little things, jumping out of the bus when the bus stops and getting the record table set up, almost like a road manager type thing. He goes and checks to make sure what time we play. He takes a little bit of the load off of me. He’s willing to maybe help out more than he did the first time around because he got a taste of it.”
Richardson’s resume includes six years working with Lou Reid and Carolina, and he has recorded or toured with other bluegrass acts like the Seldom Scene, Ricky Skaggs, James King, Bobby Hicks, Randy Kohrs, Little Roy Lewis, the Shankman Twins, Gena Britt, and Bradley Walker. He came back with Larry in September of 2014. “It’s awesome,” Richardson said. “There’s no pressure. I knew a whole lot about Larry in my younger days, but especially when I got in his band, I learned a whole lot. He never gives up and he’s always on top of things. To me, that’s the coolest thing about Larry. That’s kind of hard to find in a business if you really look around at the newer groups. Larry is a cool guy. He’s laid back. We all have ideas and usually, we’re all on the same page. It makes everything a whole lot easier. The band is great. We have a good chemistry. I think the vocals are the best Larry’s ever had. It’s really working. He’s always had a great band.”
Upright bassist Matt Wright, 22, is a fresh face to the national bluegrass scene. A native of Waynesboro, N.C., he started putting down the bass line at the age of nine for the regional band Hominy Valley Boys. He entered the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. He played his first gig with LSB in June of 2014 at the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. “He’s a fine young man,” Larry said. “He comes from a musical family over in western North Carolina. He’s a good Godly man, as all three of these guys are. He fits right in with us very well and is enjoying the learning experience with us. He’s loving every minute of it. He thanks me all the time for hiring him, and that’s special. That makes me feel good because I was about his age when I went to work with Bill Harrell. I know exactly how he’s feeling and what he’s seeing out here.”
“It’s a dream come true!” Wright said. “He doesn’t run it as a band. He runs it more like a family. And that’s real nice, coming as a kid that didn’t really know anything about music or about the industry. He and Kenny both took me under their wings and really helped me out a lot. He’s a real good guy, real nice, man of God. He’s almost like a father figure to me being as young as I am and him helping me as much as he is.”
Larry’s multi-talented wife, Dreama, is another intricate part of Larry’s team. While she doesn’t pick or sing in the band, she is instrumental in keeping the business side running. “We both work out of our home,” Larry said. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here almost 24/7, it seems like, with the two of us. I couldn’t do the computer work that’s got to be done these days without her,” he adds. For a time, she took over the reins from her father, Sterling Belcher, in promoting the Festival In The Pines in Rocky Mount, Va. Her work earned Dreama the 2004 SPBGMA Promoter Of The Year award.
Larry and Dreama celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary in July. While Larry is deeply grateful for his wife’s support, he does admit their similar personalities can produce some stress at times. “I think we’re both kind of alike,” he said. “We’re both kind of driven. We want things done, and we want them done now. Sometimes there’s not enough hours in the day to get things done. For the most part, it works out pretty well. But every now and then, sometimes it’s good to get on the bus and leave the house and get away from each other a little bit,” he says with a hearty laugh. “We have a good relationship, and it works out really well. We need each other to do what we do.”
These days, Dreama devotes a lot of time to motherhood, but continues to focus on her graphics/photography/promotional sales business while helping Larry run their label, Whysper Dream Music. “We started the label to save that record when Pinecastle shut down,” explained Larry. “It had already been released. We bought the master from them. There’s not as much distribution going on these days with record labels as there used to be. As long as we’re out here working dates and staying busy, we’ll sell product.
“One of the other advantages that I have is Dreama, and she’s able to do all the artwork, the photography. She’s done that on our last five or six projects. Everything was done right here in this house except for the manufacturing and the recording. It’s a lot of work right out of the gate, putting that record together, getting it out, and making sure you’ve got it to where it needs to go. When the dust settles, it’s definitely worth it.”
After a lifetime of music memories, Larry’s love for the music has not diminished. “I’m hoping to continue to stay busy and work,” he says. “It’s a crazy time in this crazy music world. I just want to continue to play music. I still enjoy it very much. I’m approaching somewhere around forty years of doing this. I still enjoy getting in the bus and driving up and down the same roads we’ve been traveling all these years. I’ve got a great bunch of guys with me who enjoy it also. I think I’m singing better and picking songs better now than I ever have. I hope the fans and the promoters and everyone will let me continue.”