Norm Stephens not too many months ago got off the road playing guitar for Merle Haggard in
band The Strangers, though he
still sets in on some special shows and does recording work with
the Hag. Norm played for Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson. Lefty
Frizzell was hugely influential
on Haggard and other singers who grew up in the '50's, as well as artists
of the following generation,
including George Strait, Randy Travis, Willie Nelson and the late Keith
Whitley. Haggard said,
"It was an effort to try to recapture some of that great music that
was made by Hank Williams,
Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and people like that; the kind of music
that (transitioned) from the
big bands into Elvis," says Haggard from his home in Redding, Cal.
"Norm Stephens had all the
necessary electronic information (and) knowledge. He was there when
it happened. He was such
valuable find. Not only to me, but to the public...Norms experience lended to this great old
Prominently featured on Merle Haggard's ROOTS
album is the distinctive
lead guitar work of
Norman Stephens, who also played lead guitar on two of Lefty
Frizzell's first recording sessions.
In fact, "Roots, Volume 1" marks Stephen's first appearance on record
in five decades.
Stephens says, "(Merle) wanted to try and make it sound as original
as possible. Of course, Jim Beck's
studio was pretty popular back in those days when Lefty was recording.
Merle decided to quit using the
gadgetry that they have nowadays and just record it as naturally as
we could. So, he set up a little room
in his own house and set up a sound engineer there with a little
that he had and everybody just
played live. So, it was kind of like we did in the old days."
Stephens' discography might not be extensive - eight songs recorded
with Frizzell in 1950 and 1951 (a
mid-'50's stint with Hank Thompson went unrecorded) - but considering
that four of those songs went to
the top of the charts, he was heard by millions nonetheless, influencing
thousands of future country
guitarists - including Merle Haggard - with his fluid style. It is
more than worth it to track down every
one of his recordings in ever record store and
pawn shop NYC
Ironically, Haggard and Stephens had practically lived within a stone's
throw of one another for years.
Though Stephens had long known that Haggard lived nearby, he never
attempted to contact him.
"I didn't want to bother him because he's always getting someone coming
up saying, 'I knew your grand-
mother,' or some such thing as that," says Stephens, 70.
For his part, Haggard had no idea that Stephens was even still alive,
much less living nearby. Stephens is
mentioned only twice in Daniel Cooper's 1995 biography of Frizzell.
Since Stephens' recording career
had ended so early, little was known about him. And though friends
with Frizzell in his later years,
Haggard never got around to asking the late singer about Stephens'
"I just ran into him by accident," says Haggard, 64. "He lives about
12 miles from me, and I didn't know it.
Over the years, he's been one of the people I've admired the most on
guitar. My piano player (Doug
Colosio) asked me if I'd ever heard of a guitar player named Norman
Stephens, and I said, 'Yeah, he was
on Lefty Frizzell's first records.' He said, 'Well, he's got an ad
in the paper.' So, he called him, and I asked
him, 'Are you the guy that played on 'If You've Got the Money I've
Got the Time?'' And he said 'Yeah.'
So, I said, 'Why don't we get together?' So, within 48 hours, we were
making this album."
"I was kind of flattered that he wanted me to come out and do some work
with him. I walked into his
house, and he shook my hand and said, 'So, you're Norm Stephens?' He
said he'd been an admirer of
mine for most of his life, and I had no idea that that was the case.
He said he's been listening to my guitar
work on Lefty's records for a long time and tried to pattern some of
his own stuff on what I'd done. That
was kind of a surprise and a compliment to me, of course."
"It so happened that he had been thinking about doing a tribute to Lefty
Frizzell. Since I was on Lefty's
original records, he thought it'd be appropriate for me to be on the
tribute." Although Stephens hadn't
played much over the past decade, he says that it didn't take him long
to recover his technique.
"It's a lot like riding a bicycle. Your knowledge doesn't go away,
but your coordination does, so it took
a little while to get back into shape. But the musicians were very
kind to give me time to get into some
kind of playing shape."
Although it's sometimes forgotten nowadays, there was a time early in
Frizzell's career when his star shone
as brightly as that of Hank Williams Sr. The period from 1950 to 1952
was a great time for both artists,
and Frizzell's recordings from this era were hugely influential on
Haggard and other singers who grew up
in the '50's, as well as artists of the following generation, including
George Strait, Randy Travis and the
late Keith Whitley and Willie Nelson and others. In this respect
Norm's guitar playing had a big influence
on these legends.
PIONEERTROUBADOURS.COM where you can find more great pics of Norm...
Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Norm Stephens