Album Review of
Life Stories

Written by Joe Ross
June 12, 2015 - 12:00am EDT
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The packaging for Larry Stephenson's "Life Stories" may only be in black and white, but the band's music is a palette of vivid bluegrassy color accentuated with hues of joy, happiness, sorrow and regret - prime fodder for the tales of bluegrass music. While great bluegrass can come in many sizes, sounds, forms and shapes, Larry and company have a firm handle on that "high lonesome sound" with plenty of force, aptitude and drive. That may partly explain why the Fredericksburg, Va. native has won so many vocal awards over the years. After stints with Cliff Waldron, Leon Morris, Bill Harrell, and Bluegrass Cardinals, Stephenson formed his own band in 1989. With decades of recording experience, this Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame member has ten previous albums out on the Webco and Pinecastle labels. 

"Life Stories" features Larry (mandolin), Aaron McDaris (banjo), Dustin Benson (guitar), Missy Raines (bass), Shad Cobb and Jimmy VanCleve (fiddle). Rob Ickes appears with his Weissenborn acoustic guitar on one cut, Dixie and Tom T. Hall's "The Knoxville Boy." Despite the label's perceived budget constraints, a couple more panels in the CD jacket would've been nice to include liner narrative about the band and the songs. Instrumentally, the pickers have a golden touch for just the right breaks, licks and fills. There are occasional flavors of twin fiddles, guitar breaks, and more. Larry took up mandolin at age five, and he has the chop down. His occasional breaks are loud, clear and smooth. Instead of picking an overdone ol' warhorse for their instrumental selection, a barn-burning "Monrovia" is one that the three core members of the group co-wrote. A bluegrass arrangement of the western swing classic, "Deep Water," is mighty fine. We are seeing Tom T. and Dixie Hall songs on a majority of major label bluegrass releases. They are an indefatigable songwriting team with a great understanding of bluegrass, apparent in their two songs on this project. 

All songs on the 37-minute album: Old Kentucky Hills, Poor Old Cora, The Knoxville Boy, Why Don't You Tell Me So?, Veil of White Lace, Monrovia, Deep Water, Behind Those Big Closed Doors, I've Lived A Lot In My Time, Iron Mountain Line, Baby Shoes, Waiting for the Sun to Shine

Vocally, the band's trio (with McDaris and Benson's harmonies) can send warmth up your spine like a toasty woodstove. In addition to more traditional repertoire with new arrangements (I've Live A Lot in my Time, Why Don't You Tell Me So?), their set presents some newer material ("Behind Closed Doors") from up-and-coming songwriters like Connie Leigh. There's a juxtaposition of songs about trains, home and family alongside those about murder, incest, and a baby lost. Stories of life merely document, not always explain, the trials and tribulations we encounter. Sometimes we're left with questions (Why Don't You Tell Me So?), but hopefully when our final day finally arrives we can proudly declare "I've Lived A Lot in my Time." One pleasant technique they use in the latter (and with much more potential in bluegrass) is modulation (key changes) during the course of a song. This mixture of the old and new, albeit always with strong traditional foundation, is a very successful approach for Stephenson that has won him a multitude of fans. (Joe Ross)