Kurt Stephenson on the banjo, music, and recording

Kurt Stephenson joins Acousticult today to talk shop about banjo, performance, and recording. Kurt, tell us who you are, what you do and where you’re located.

My name is Kurt Stephenson.  I was born in 1985 in Dyersburg, Tennessee.  Dyersburg is a small town in the northwestern part of Tennessee, and I’ve lived there all my life. My wife Andrea and I have been married for 3 years and she is a very accomplished guitar player in her own right.  I have a B.S. degree in radiologic sciences from Arkansas State University

ACOUSTICULT: No way! My associates degree is from ASU-Beebe!

I currently work Monday through Friday as a radiation therapist at the local cancer care clinic in my hometown.   I enjoy playing music on the weekends with my wife and our friends, and with my band High Fidelity.  

ACOUSTICULT: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?

I developed a love for music at the age of nine.  Both of my parents were musicians and singers, so I was around music from the beginning.  My dad, Charlie, played the banjo and guitar, and my mom, Donna, plays the piano and accordian.  They sang in a gospel quartet for a period of time and were involved in music at our home church.  I started singing very soon after I started talking. My mom would teach me children’s church songs and I always loved getting on the platform when the children would sing a “special” on Sundays.

ACOUSTICULT: You must’ve grown up Baptist. My mom has always mentioned “singing specials” when she was growing up in church. 

But as I mentioned earlier, my true passion for music began when I was nine.  One day my dad and I were riding in the truck and I told him I wanted to learn how to play the banjo.  To this day, I don’t know what made me say that. Honestly, I didn’t really like bluegrass then; I just thought I’d like to learn an instrument, and the banjo came to mind.  Not long after that conversation, Dad bought me an Alvarez banjo for $300. The first thing learned on the banjo was the “shave and a haircut” lick….only on the first string.  I’d play that for anyone that would listen! Dad started showing me the forward roll and some easy chords, but I was having trouble with the roll and said, “I quit”. Out of frustration I laid that banjo down for a couple of months, but decided to pick it back up and give it another try.  This time, I was committed. While my friends were into sports and whatnot, I was immersed in music. Dad had the “Foggy Mt. Banjo” LP by Earl Scruggs, and I listened to it on our record player continuously. Along with “Foggy Mt. Banjo”, I listened to two Little Roy Lewis instrumental albums, which have long been out of print.  They were “Gospel Banjo”, and “Golden Gospel Banjo”. All three albums I’ve mentioned were monumental in developing my ear for good, clean, no-nonsense banjo playing. My dad, being a banjo player himself, was a 24-7 teacher for me. We had many, many sit down lessons together and he was always there listening and watching, making sure I was playing it right.

ACOUSTICULT: What an invaluable resource man. Neither of my parents grew up playing instruments. My mom played a little bit of piano growing up, but never took it seriously.

Dad instilled within me the importance of playing the melody, and to not play something fast until I’ve learned to play it smooth and clean.  Those are two very important lessons and philosophies that shape my playing to this day. Interestingly enough, though I was obsessed with the banjo, I still wasn’t completely obsessed with bluegrass music in general.  For me, it was all banjo all the time.

ACOUSTICULT: That was my fascination with guitar; the instrument itself, not the genre of music it was associated with.

I didn’t have time for the slower 3/4 time stuff!  That all would change in due time, though. Early on, I told Dad that I would make some money with the banjo.  When I was 12, Dad took me to a competition in Sardis, TN to let me enter the banjo contest. I believe it was my very first time playing on stage for complete strangers and it was obviously my first competition.  I couldn’t believe it when it happened, but I won first place and $50! From that moment on, I wanted to play on stage and maybe eventually join a band. At least I lived up to my word, I’d make money with that banjo!  

ACOUSTICULT: What are your favorite 5 albums, and do they influence your work? If so, in what ways?

I have a pretty big record collection/library and there are SO many albums that have influenced me.  Narrowing it down to the five most influential is tough! But here’s a potential list…

“Foggy Mt. Banjo” – Flatt and Scruggs……I still listen to this album and am in awe.  Every time I listen to it, I hear something that I haven’t heard before.  Earl Scruggs’s playing is perfect. The tone, timing, and taste are absolutely spot on.  I believe every banjo player should own this record. Listen to it carefully. Study it. There’s banjo playing “wisdom” and inspiration to draw from on every cut.  It’s an essential album for every bluegrass banjo player (and every bluegrass musician in general!).  

 “1940 Dallas Session” – The Chuck Wagon Gang…..I love the Chuck Wagon Gang.  I love the simplicity of their music.  It’s straight forward, straight-to-the-heart gospel singing.  Just one guitar and four voices. There have been many versions of the CWG over their storied history, but the original group of “Dad”, Jim, Rose, and Anna Carter simply could not be beat in my opinion.  My dad bought me the “1940 Dallas Session” album several years ago and I was smitten. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of songs they’ve recorded through the years, the songs on that album to me are the cream of the crop.  

“Wanted” – Don Reno and Red Smiley & The Tennessee Cut-ups……Perhaps the greatest influence on my banjo playing is the late, great Don Reno.  My love for banjo playing began with Earl Scruggs, but I discovered Don Reno’s banjo style not long after I started seriously playing.  My dad bought me a Reno and Smiley cassette tape called “20 Bluegrass Originals” and I just thought there was something different about that music, especially the banjo.  Reno’s style captivated me and I began a quest to learn everything I could about his playing. Red Smiley was arguably the finest rhythm guitar player of the first generation masters.  His smooth lead vocals were just excellent. The “Wanted” album from 1961 is my favorite LP that the group produced. So much awesome banjo playing and the music is just superb. I still try to play the banjo arrangements on this album note-for-note. 

“The Complete Mercury Sessions” – The Stanley Brothers…..Rather than one single album, this is actually a compilation of all the sides recorded by Ralph and Carter Stanley & The Clinch Mt. Boys for the Mercury label in the 1950’s.  Overall, the Stanley Brothers are probably my favorite bluegrass group. It goes without saying that I love Ralph Stanley’s banjo style. Ralph’s playing is completely different from that of Scruggs or Reno, but the tone of his archtop banjo and his relentless drive captivated me early on.  I still love paying homage to Ralph in my banjo playing today. The Stanley sound is different from any other bluegrass out there. To me, their music has more soul and touches the heart more than any of their contemporaries. I’m a complete Stanley nut! 

“One Step Forward” – The Lonesome River Band…..It took me a long time to give any attention to modern bluegrass, but this album by LRB really opened my eyes to great contemporary bluegrass.  I don’t necessarily think it’s my favorite modern bluegrass album, but it’s probably the first “new” bluegrass album I purchased. The sound was so together and the drive was unlike anything I’d heard before.  I’ve always been of the opinion that LRB achieved their sound mostly because of Sammy Shelor’s banjo playing. And of course, I had to try to figure out what he was doing. I love the Lonesome River Band and give them the most credit for me gaining interest and appreciation for contemporary bluegrass and the “groove” that comes along with it!

ACOUSTICULT: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

My favorite part of my music career is the performance aspect of it.  I love playing on stage in front of a good responsive crowd. When I perform with High Fidelity, my job is to concentrate on my banjo picking and my singing.  My bandmates (and phenomenal musicians) Jeremy Stephens and Corrina Rose Logston handle the emcee duties. So, I get to stay in my “comfort zone” and just enjoy picking the banjo.  I also perform with my wife Andrea, along with dear friends in the West TN area. In this configuration, she and I both handle the emcee work. Speaking in front of a crowd is actually challenging for me, especially while I’m also trying to tune in between songs!  But I’m working to get better at that. There is a good bluegrass base in West TN, and she and I thoroughly enjoy performing for the bluegrass music lovers in the region. There’s nothing like getting positive feedback from an audience. Making a connection with them and having the feeling that your music is brightening their day is a wonderful experience.  Aside from performing, I do enjoy recording somewhat. There’s always a little more pressure in the recording studio, but it’s very exciting to go back and listen to some great unplanned musical moments that have been captured on tape.                                                            

ACOUSTICULT: What are three musicians today do you think are underrated?

There are so many incredible musicians in bluegrass music.  Many get well deserved recognition, but there are some that might get over-looked.  One musician that comes to mind is Jay Kaczor from Virginia.

ACOUSTICULT: I went to college with Jay. He’s one of the most capable bluegrass musicians I’ve ever met.

I met Jay when he was attending college at Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee.  We met at a jam session in Jackson and I was blown away by his musicianship and vocal ability.  He is an awesome guitar, mandolin, and banjo player. He’s also an incredible lead and tenor singer.  Jay doesn’t play music full time, but he should definitely have greater recognition and more people in the bluegrass community to be familiar with his talents.  I believe Brent Burke is very underrated as a dobro player. Brent plays with Rhonda Vincent. The past few times we’ve seen Rhonda’s show, Brent has absolutely knocked it out of the park with his dobro playing.  Not taking anything away from anyone else, but I believe Brent is definitely in the upper echelon of dobro players. I’d love to see him win an IBMA award for his playing. PJ George is another friend of mine who I feel should get the recognition he’s deserving of.  PJ currently lives in Nashville and plays bass with Lindsay Lou. I’ve worked on a few sessions with PJ playing bass. He is a brilliant musician and a masterful bassist. PJ is also a great guitar player, drummer, and pianist. But his bass playing is rock solid and he’s always got such a great feel for what’s happening musically.  His name needs to be out there.  

ACOUSTICULT: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of?

My main “axe” that I use is a 1998 Osborne Chief banjo.  I got this banjo from Gruhn guitars in Nashville, TN back in 2001.  It’s a banjo assembled by Frank Neat and it’s a replica of Sonny Osborne’s pre-war Gibson Granada.  Dad bought me my first Gibson banjo back in 1995 after I’d been playing for 6 months. It’s an Earl Scruggs Standard model and I still have that banjo.  It was my main banjo for several years, even after I’d acquired the Osborne Chief. However, around 2005, I started playing more and more on the Chief and it became my workhorse.  It’s had countless hours of practice, jamming, performing, etc. played into it. I love the banjo and don’t see myself ever parting with it. Additionally, I use Bluechip thumb picks, old National finger picks, Wyatt finger picks, Elliot capos, and Shubb capos.

ACOUSTICULT: If you were given $100,000 to spend on an album production, what would it look like?

If I had $100,000 to spend on a “dream” album…In reality, I’d probably use up no more than $20,000, and put the other $80,000 in the bank or towards my mortgage! I’ve been in the studio a few times with Brad Benge at the controls. Brad is a friend of ours and is an excellent audio engineer, so I’d have him in the studio.  I’ve also thought it would be neat to work with Ben Isaacs serving as producer. I’d want my Hi Fi bandmates to be a part of it. My wife and my home crew of musicians would be on it as well.  It would be neat to have people like Stuart Duncan, Jesse Brock, Jerry Douglas, Charlie Cushman, Bryan Sutton, etc. to be apart of it as well. I would like to record it at Hilltop Studio.

ACOUSTICULT: This is the most complete answer to this question I’ve gotten so far. Thank you for taking the time to explain this out! What is your favorite album or recording so far that you’ve made?

I’ve had the opportunity to record a decent number of times.  It’s hard to pick a top favorite album that I’ve been a part of, so I’ll name three.  Each one has a different special meaning to it. I’ll begin with the earliest of the three.  I was able to go into the studio with my banjo mentor Charlie Cushman back in 2004. I was going in to record my second solo album.  Charlie was going to play guitar and produce the record. He recruited Dennis Crouch to play bass and Shadd Cobb to play fiddle and mandolin.  It was a nerve wracking experience to play with the top session players in Nashville, but it was great! The next album I’d like to mention is High Fidelity’s second project, “Hills And Home”.  Although it was our second time in the studio, it was our first time to record for a major record label. We had signed with Rebel records a few months earlier. “Hills and Home” has had quite a bit of airplay on SiriusXM radio and other stations around the country.  The third and most recent album on my “favorite” list is my first recording with my wife, Andrea. We went into the studio earlier this year and had some of our buddies from West TN come in to record with us. (Shout out to Curtis Mann, David Pierce, and Jeff Smith!) We also recruited Corrina Rose Logston to play fiddle.  As of this writing, the album is in the final stages of production and we are so excited to get the end result!  

ACOUSTICULT: What are you currently working on?

As far as my banjo playing goes, I’m in a season right now where I’m not really working on anything new.  I know I should be, though! I’m kind of in “maintain” mode right now. I’m wanting to stay sharp on things that I’m already playing.  But as far as material goes, Andrea and I are working on adding new music to our repertoire. We are wanting to branch out and do different things, mostly in the gospel music field.  Our faith in Jesus Christ guides us and we are always looking for avenues and music to spread the Gospel and be a blessing wherever we go. We go for a style that blends bluegrass gospel and southern gospel music.  It’s a blending of tastes, so to speak. 

ACOUSTICULT: Thanks so much for taking the time to give us a little insight into your world, Kurt.