Norm Stephens isn’t a household name, even to country music fans who have no doubt heard his guitar playing. But to Merle Haggard, Stephens – the original guitarist behind Hag’s biggest influence, Lefty Frizzell – is a hero. When Stephens decided to come out of retirement, he placed a classified ad in the local newspaper. When pianist Doug Colosio showed his boss the ad and Merle realized that one of the guitarists he patterned his style after lived only miles away, he didn’t just answer the ad, he started rolling tape.
The resultant Roots, Vol. 1 is one of the best, most meaningful albums of Haggard’s 39-year career – which is saying something. More than a tribute to Frizzell, it also embraces the repertoires of Hank Williams and Hank Thompson, another legend Stephens toured with. On classics such as Frizzell’s “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” and “Look What Thoughts Will Do,” Williams’ “Honky Tonkin'” and Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” Stephens’ simple, melodic playing is right at home. His style is economical and tasteful, in the same way Billy Byrd’s work with Ernest Tubb was – never using a lot of notes when only a few will get the point across better. Steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, likewise, places taste above flash, and having guitarists Merle and Redd Volkaert in support can only help.
Recorded in Haggard’s living room, the album has a presence and intimacy that’s been absent in country (or just about any) records for far too long. “There’s none of that crap that we’ve all become used to hearing on records nowadays,” says Merle with typical candor. With the layering and isolation peeled away, one truly has the feeling of being right there in the living room with the band. Kudos to engineers Lou Bradley and Bob McGill.
Anyone who’s followed Haggard’s career won’t be surprised by him tipping his hat to his heroes – something he’s already done with respect to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. But when a bona fide legend enlists an unsung hero to pay tribute to his idol, it’s a pivotal event in country music. One not to be missed.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.