By Larry Stephens
1964. I was still in high school and the proud owner of a ’64 Impala, 409, 4-speed (some of you will know what that means). I installed an ARC 45 rpm record player under the dash. 8-track tapes were down the road. What was a cassette tape? Chad & Jeremy hit the airwaves with “Yesterday’s Gone.” Music is sometimes magical and the Larry Stephenson Band’s faster version of this ’60’s hit triggers some special memories—with a banjo playing the melody.
A trademark of the many iterations of Stephenson’s band is excellent harmony, and the current group is no different. Every veteran bluegrass fan is familiar with Stephenson’s clear, high tenor vocals and here they are combined with banjo veteran Kenny Ingram, guitarist Kevin Richardson and Matt Wright (upright bass) singing harmony and lead vocals.
Included are other songs from days past like Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” with Stephenson hitting those really high notes and doing a beautiful rendition on the mandolin. They bring back Mac Wiseman’s “Free Me From the Old Chain Gang” in a lively version riding on Ingram’s banjo with breaks by Richardson and guest Aubrey Haynie on fiddle.
Bill Anderson composed “Nail My Shoes To the Floor” and released it on his 1966 “I Love You Drops” LP. It has lyrics that describe what some relationships need: “Nail my shoes to the floor, glue my coat to the door, take my hat throw it far far away; hide the keys to my car …” and I admit I like Anderson’s slower version better but LSB makes it a good bluegrass number. The Delmore Brothers made some great music and Ingram drives “Midnight Train” with his banjo with Stephenson, Richardson and Haynie taking high-speed breaks. Excellent bluegrass!
One of my favorite Stephenson songs is “Patches,” a touching number about love betrayed and lost to death. The title cut, “Weep Little Willow, Weep,” is a different context but reminds me of “Patches:” a slow song of tragedy centered around a young girl. This one will touch even a cold heart. Another good ballad is “Let Those Brown Eyes Smile At Me,” a number going back to Flatt & Scruggs and a 1957 recording by Rose Maddox. Stephenson can wring out the last bits of empathy from a song like this and the band’s harmony singing adds to the effect of the song. Another excellent ballad comes from the pen of the late Randall Hylton, “It Almost Feels Like Love.” How many of us can say, “been there, done that?”
Larry Stephenson has played bluegrass as a band member in his early days (with Cliff Waldron and later Bill Harrell, as a member of the Bluegrass Cardinals), super-groups like WhiteHouse, and leading his own band since 1989. His music is always excellent, whether on stage or on a recording and this latest CD will be welcomed by all bluegrass fans.