|Country Standard Time
By C. Eric Banister, March 2008
Larry Stephenson grows "Thankful"
"We had three or four tracks cut for a gospel album and decided, well, let's just follow �Clinch Mountain Mystery' up with another bluegrass record. We kept finding all these really nice story songs, and Tom T. and Dixie sent �Waiting on the Sun to Shine' and �The Knoxville Boy.' It just kind of took its own direction, and we put the gospel album on the backburner. Well about a year and a half later, we had these tracks cut and thought, let's get this gospel album finished, so we just went in the studio and finished it up."
In addition to his band, which at the time included banjo player Aaron McDaris and guitar player Dustin Benson, Stephenson brought in a couple of old friends to round out the players calling on bass player Missy Raines and fiddler Shad Cobb.
Unlike many gospel projects, Stephenson decided to include a few originals.
"I think the songs are a little easier to find. There's a lot of great gospel material out here, and a good gospel song can be done many different ways," he says.
But he doesn't limit himself to strictly traditional sources when searching for songs, but always keeping an ear towards what fits the band's sound best.
"I think it's what fits the band, what fits my voice and just coming up with the right material like that old song �May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.' I've kind of had that song running through my head for years, and I knew I really, really liked it. I researched it, and it kind of fit what I do, and it made a nice song for the album," he explains. "I look in all different directions for songs. A lot of these older songs from the �40s, �50s and �60s are just great songs, and I love that era of music and the way the songs were written a little bit more than the way some of it is written today, the newer things."
Two of the directions Stephenson looked for songs were that of his frequent co-writers Jerry Salley and the Halls, who provided gospel material that honor two venerable bluegrass themes � ailing children and mother.
"I knew Jerry Salley had a lot of gospel stuff, and I went to him," he says. "�Open Up The Window' is a song idea that I had from visiting a children's cancer facility in Baton Rouge, La., Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. They were giving us a tour of that facility. We were playing a festival down there, and the fellow giving the tour mentioned that the kids are so sick, and they know they're not doing well, and some of them tell their parents to open up the windows, and let the angels in. It's really heartbreaking. I took that idea back to Jerry, who's a great friend and great songwriter and written a lot of gospel music over the years, and we wrote that song together."
The Halls and Stephenson have a history dating back three albums.
"We were doing the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree, hosting that�probably been seven or eight years ago (in Nashville), I guess," he remembers. "He (Tom T.) sent his assistant Becky over that night, and she gave me a CD of some songs he had written, I think it was an album he put out or something at the time, and they were just starting to get into the bluegrass writing and getting their songs out to a lot of the bluegrass artists."
"I listened to a few of them, and I remember there wasn't a lot on that particular CD that really interested me, but I called him one day and said, �hey, I really want to do something, send me some more stuff.' That's when �Clinch Mountain Mystery' came in and �Pretty Blue Dress.' We just kind of got to know each other from the International Bluegrass Music Association conventions and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America conventions. He was familiar with me and, of course, I was familiar with him, and it just kind of built over the years, the relationship."
And not only is Stephenson writing with a friend, but he is now writing with a Country Music Hall of Famer.
"It's really funny. He called me Monday morning about 8:30, and he didn't say anything about it. I don't know if he didn't know it or, just the kind of guy he is, didn't say anything about it," he says. "Then yesterday morning at 11 o' clock, I see it on TV that he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I was just telling my wife that it is just so weird to me to be that close to somebody and have spoken to them a day before, and now here they're in the Country Music Hall of Fame. And it's well deserved. It probably should have been done years ago. He's a great guy and what a songwriter! I mean, man o' man, the catalog he's got is just unbelievable, and I'm so happy for him."
Their songwriting collaboration resulted in the song "Every Day is Mother's Day," a paean to the blessing of motherhood.
"I got that idea from a friend of mine up in Virginia, and I took it to Tom T. and Dixie. The next thing I know, they wrote it," he laughs. "Basically, it was my idea. I think I came up with a line or two, but we didn't actually sit down and write that song together. It was just kind of my idea, and they were kind enough to put my name on it."
But Tom T. isn't the only one in the partnership that has been bestowed a hall of fame honor, as Stephenson is a proud member of the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Inducted in 1996 by the Virginia Folk Music Association, the honor still comes as a shock to him.
"I don't know that I'm worthy or not," he says. "It was very kind of them to do that, but sometimes I think I don't know if I'm old enough or have I been around long enough for this, you know? But they seem to have felt that I had and was."
"When I was in middle school and high school, my Dad and I used to play music around the state of Virginia, and we used to go down and participate in some of those Folk Music Association events that they put on across the state of Virginia. So, I was aware of who they were and what they'd done, and I knew they had a Hall of Fame and had inducted people every year like Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman, Eddie Adcock, Bill Harrell, the Statler Brothers, the Stanley Brothers and people like that, Patsy Cline's in it, and I was very aware of it. I moved to Nashville in 1992, and I had been down here about 4 years, and they called 1 day and said I was going to be the next guy. It just blew me away, I couldn't believe it. So. I was very very honored to be a part of that group of folks."
Earlier this year. Stephenson was honored with his fifth Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year award by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, something that is very important to him because it isn't just an industry award.
"I think all awards are important, you know, we could probably sit here and debate them all day, but the fans vote on that award down there at the convention every year in Nashville, and to me, the fans are what it's all about," he says. "I mean, we play to �em, they spend their hard earned money to some see us play and sing, something we love to do and when they vote you something like that and present you an award, it's very important to me coming from the fans."
Even though "Thankful" is just hitting shelves across the country, Stephenson is already working on his next project, taking advantage of a midwest ice storm to look for new material for the all-bluegrass project.
"The last two or three days with the weather being like it is, I've been sitting in the middle of my floor listening to CDs," he says describing his search process. "I get stuff in the mail; I've got about a 3,000 album, LP, the old vinyl LPs, record collection that I go through a lot to find old material, and I just start putting the word out and let people know that I'm getting ready to record. I bet in the last two days, I've probably listened to 500 songs. I look in all kinds of places, anything from rock 'n' roll albums to country albums to old bluegrass albums and people you've never heard of, people just walk up to me at shows and give me cassettes and CDs sometimes of songs that they've written and I listen to every one of them. So, it comes from all different directions with me."