Saturday, September 24, 2011
Rehearsal at Larry Stephenson's Home
We pulled into the parking lot of Bass Pro Shops, the only store currently open at Opry Mills Mall in suburban Nashville, destroyed by the floods on the Cumberland River two years ago and still caught in the process of re-building. Soon, renowned sound engineer and producer Ben Surratt arrived to pick us up and bring us along to Larry Stephenson's home in nearby Cottontown where he'd be participating in a rehearsal session for the new and still unnamed CD Stephenson will release, probably during the winter for his new label Compass Records. During the drive, Ben emphasized the challenge of taking covers of songs previously recorded by other artists in different genres and paying homage to the original while giving it the unique tweak that makes it his own. He talked about his job as a co-producer and long-time friend of Larry's as being there to listen and help the band use its own unique strengths to bring the song to life. He spoke about the individual strengths of the four men in the band and the ability of each to contribute significantly. At this point in the development of the songs, work had been going on for several months. Today, Stephenson would be introducing one new song, and they would continue the process of developing and refining the others, looking for twelve songs that fit together into a new recording.
A native of Virginia, Larry starting to perform as a child with his family's band. Larry began his professional career with Bill Harrell & the Virginians in 1979 and then spent a couple of years with The Bluegrass Cardinals, singing high tenor lead in both bands. He formed his own band in 1989, moving to Nashville in 1992. Since then he has been based in the Nashville area and continues to tour the U.S. and abroad. He is instantly recognizable for his strong, clear tenor voice and absolutely understandable interpretation of lyrics. A strong traditionalist, Stephenson has mined the bluegrass and country music catalogs for songs he can make his own, attaching his unique sound and spin to them. One of his signature songs, "The Song That Set My Soul On Fire" tells much about who he is, as he sings about first hearing Bobby Osborne singing "Rocky Top" and being mesmerized by it. He continues to return to the Osborne Brothers as models for the sound he has created.
Kenny Ingram is recognized as one of the finest traditional banjo players active today. He has impeccable credentials, first becoming interested in the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs on the radio, he first played professionally with James Monroe before joining Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys for a short stint. He then moved to Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, where his reputation as a Scruggs style player was firmly established. He later returned to the Jimmy Martin band for several years before leaving the road for other pursuits for about fifteen years. In 2000 he joined Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, quickly re-establishing his reputation. He toured with Vincent for eight years before moving to The Larry Stephenson Band, where he's become an integral part of the band, returning to singing as well as providing leadership with his distinctive hard driving sound.
While young in years, Kevin Richardson is old in experience, having spent nearly twenty years on the road including six years with Lou Reid & Carolina. He has played guest stints with a star-studded list of important bands. He's an excellent flat picker and adds his vocal skills singing harmony to Stephenson's lead. He's also a fine solo singer. Putting in strong rhythm guitar and intricately figured guitar breaks to complement his strong singing, Kevin provides powerful support for this excellent band.
Danny Stewart, Jr.
Danny Stewart is the newest member of the Larry Stephenson Band. He comes from northeastern Pennsylvania where his Dad, Danny Stewart, Sr. plays mandolin and sings with Remington Ryde, a first rate regional band. Stewart is a recent graduate of the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University, where he now teaches bass and beginning guitar. In addition to providing the kind of rock solid bass underpinnings a band requires, he sings bass on acapella quartets.
Recording engineers are among the most important and least recognized elements in the record producing process, and Ben Surratt is one of the best, having worked on projects nominated for Dove Awards, IBMA Awards, and Grammies. How do you measure the contributions of an ear that distinguishes the subtle differences emerging as a band develops and refines a song? How does the light touch of an engineer's fingers on a sound board affect the product that eventually emerges on disks as invisible 0's and 1's? And yet without the work of sound engineers in the studio and in the performance arena, the sound of bluegrass music would never reach beyond the jam circle. Add to that the gentle suggestions of a producer as he seeks to influence a band's progress without ever pushing them beyond what they're ready to undertake, and you have the wizardry of Ben Surratt.
Watching the band work for about three hours on a Friday afternoon before heading out for their performance at Bean Blossom on Saturday, I learned a new appreciation for the art of the cover song. I often write about the importance of original material for bands, the need to keep pushing for new and distinctive sounds that become a band's signature. Stephenson has chosen, rather, to find older, and often overlooked, songs from bluegrass and country greats to arrange for bluegrass instruments and his distinctive voice. His career has been largely built upon his great skills at doing this while providing a framework for his wonderful voice. When I think of covers, I imagine a bunch of jammers in the field singing the song as it was originally recorded or performed. Here we saw a band seriously re-interpreting a song, bringing new life to it while remaining true to the original, looking for a stamp to make it uniquely their own.
The band ran through pieces they'd been working on for a while as well as developing their arrangement for a song newly introduced at this session. With Ed Snodderly's song "I See Love" the band had to work on tempos and ways to fit the words into their reading of it. With "Big Train" the emphasis was on the transition from the song to Kenny Ingram's closing break using Train 45. In a surprising and delightful rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Great Philadelphia Lawyer," which has been recorded by many bands, perhaps most notably The Country Gentlemen, the emphasis was on wording and phrasing, as well as breathing. In this democratic setting, everyone has input with Larry often saying "I don't know," as he throws it open for someone else to suggest an approach. "I like that." "It's like I'm here by myself...your pushing the ending too fast." "That sounds really good." Ben sits quietly by, listening intently. He asks, "What would a modulation sound like there?" Larry considers, shakes his head, thinks, noodles on the mandolin, sings it under his breath, then more full-throateded.
Kenny begins to fill in a few chords and work up and down the neck of his Recording King banjo. Sonny Osborne's Vega will come out on stage. He's not sure of what he wants to say at first, then with increasing assurance his hands move and the background licks and fills come out with increasing strength and self-assurance. The wheels turn as he begins to understand where the banjo sound fits into the overall picture. It's rare to watch a genius thinking, but the ideas flash across his face before they come out of his fingers. Who knows what thoughts are going on in there. Kenny has said he doesn't know what he's doing, but between his brain and his fingers there's an active, inquisitive intelligence at work. He hasn't sung in years, but is happy to be adding his baritone voice to the mix here, and makes thoughtful comments about alternative wordings to the text Larry's chosen.
The addition of flat picking guitar, probably pioneered by George Shuffler, being inducted in the IBMA Hall of Fame this Year, and made famous by the incomparable contributions of Tony Rice, has become a requirement in bluegrass bands, although as nearly as I can tell, the founders, especially Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs relied mostly on the guitar as a rhythm instrument. Kevin Richardson's guitar play is fast, sure, and strongly melody based. His harmony singing is sure and accurate, filling the vocal sound beneath Larry's high tenor, never intruding, always contributing. He's quiet, but raises questions when needed as well as making suggestions.
Danny Stewart is new to the band and young. He's perhaps the quietest person there, asking questions but mostly putting in his bass line. In a quartet, he questions the particular choice he's made, is told it works just fine and then repeats it. He seems happy to allow the older and more experienced musicians to lead the way without ever seeming to retreat from them.
Ben Surratt's presence is quiet, restrained and authoritative all at the same time. He sits in Dreama Stephenson's barber chair, relaxed, attentive, focused, listening intensely. He suggests a change of key which Larry tries and likes. He asks about a song he's suggested, and when Larry says it just doesn't connect with him, drops the issue and, probably, won't return to it. He's a cheer leader, encourager, and sometime suggester. There's an impression that he talks regularly with Larry; that they discuss the progress of the CD at length and over considerable time. In the rehearsal, his touch is extremely light, but his deep knowledge of the music and its history is clear. It's not all 0's and 1's for him, it's a musical form he cherishes, and his role is as a performer on a silent and unseen instrument, the sound board.
Meanwhile, Dreama Stephenson, in whose hair dressing and photography studio the rehearsal is being held, is in and around with their two and a half year old daughter Falon, and gift they'd almost given up on having, filling the room with her enthusiasm and brightness. Dreama is a talented child photographer whose work, which covers the studio walls, deserves wider exposure. Falon is a sprite, and their love for her fills the room.
Dreama & Falon
All told, it's been a wonderful day for us. The best kind of day happens when we make a visit, learn a lot, and discover new ways to know and appreciate people we've met along the bluegrass trail. In many ways, that's what our adventure is all about.
Father and Daughter