“The youngest of the old-timers” is what Larry Sparks calls himself, but what he doesn’t say is that in the course of forty years in bluegrass he’s created a body of work whose highlights stand beside the work of the music’s first-generation greats. A gut-wrenchingly soulful singer and innovative guitar stylist with an unexcelled ear for a song, he has been among the music’s most influential and original artists. “I’ve always loved Larry Sparks,” Alison Krauss said in a recent interview. When she did, she spoke for an entire community of fans – and, today, with the release of a new album that both showcases and pays tribute to his talents, that community is bound to grow even larger.
40 is a stunning set that revisits some of the many highlights of Larry Sparks’ recording career and sets out to create some new ones, all with the help of friends and admirers whose names read like a “who’s who” of bluegrass and country music. Produced by longtime Sparks fan and advocate Don Rigsby (Lonesome River Band, Rock County), this disc features an all-star cast of instrumentalists that includes such distinguished graduates from Larry’s band as his son, “Dee,” award-winning fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjoist Barry Crabtree (Wildfire), and mandolin ace David Harvey (Harley Allen Band, Claire Lynch Band), together with special guests like resonator guitarist Randy Kohrs and current members of his band, the Lonesome Ramblers.
Yet as glittering as the list of guest pickers is, it pales next to the names of guests who leapt at the chance to sing with Larry Sparks. Vince Gill provides tenor harmonies on a rapid-fire take of the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me,” country legend Tom T. Hall makes a rare appearance to swap verses on his own “I Want You To Meet My Friend,” Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski frame Sparks’ lead with burnished harmonies on the signature “John Deere Tractor” – and that’s just for starters. The long list encompasses country, bluegrass and bluegrass gospel friends and colleagues, but perhaps more notably, as a sign of Sparks’ ongoing influence, a group of next-generation country stars – Andy Griggs, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Kevin Denney, all of whom were familiar with his music before being invited to join in the project. Add it all up and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting and enjoyable celebration of a bluegrass great’s life and career.
Born in Lebanon, Ohio in 1947, Larry Sparks moved with his family to southeast Indiana before he reached his teens. He was playing guitar and singing with his sister Bernice by the time he started high school, and by the time he finished it, he was making appearances with the Stanley Brothers, playing the lead guitar that figured so prominently in their sound. When Carter Stanley died in 1966 and Ralph began his solo career, it was Sparks he turned to for a lead singer, and the young man delivered, blending the older brother’s mournful cadences with his own distinctive tones.
He began his solo career three years later, soon drawing together an outstanding group that featured banjo player Mike Lilly and mandolinist Wendy Miller and making his first recordings for tiny regional labels before releasing Ramblin’ Bluegrass on Starday in 1972. Though the association didn’t last long, it earned him his first bit of national exposure and introduced classics like “Brand New Broken Heart,” “Memories And Dreams” and the sparkling instrumental, “Kentucky Chimes.” Throughout the remainder of the decade Sparks refined his unique sound, releasing a half-dozen albums for the King Bluegrass label that featured his increasingly sophisticated lead guitar and keen, sorrowful vocals while bringing on board musicians like banjo player Dave Evans and fiddler Art Stamper.
The first phase of Sparks’ career culminated in 1978 when he recorded John Deere Tractor. One of the most influential and beloved albums in the genre’s history, it introduced the powerful title cut to an audience that eventually included Naomi and Wynonna Judd, who recorded the song for their first album. Other selections that quickly became classics included Keith Whitley’s “Great High Mountain,” given to Sparks near the end of the album’s recording process, Allen Mills’ “Love Of The Mountains” and Bill Bryson’s “Girl At The Crossroads Bar.” At nearly the same time, he recorded one of bluegrass’s most brilliant tributes, Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams, perfectly capturing the Drifting Cowboy’s blend of hillbilly twang and lowdown blues in a cross-generational effort made with the help of first-generation veteran Chubby Wise (who had recorded with Williams) and the up-and-coming Ricky Skaggs.
During the 1980s, Sparks’ insistence on doing things his own way – a stance that included a refusal to move to a more central, business-friendly location than his rural Indiana home – and his resolute commitment to a traditionally-based yet unique sound set him apart from the bluegrass mainstream, where progressive sounds ruled the day. Yet he soldiered on, producing well-crafted, compelling albums and providing an important training ground for sidemen who would go on to become stars themselves, including banjo player Scott Vestal and fiddlers Glen Duncan and Stuart Duncan.
Sparks began the 1990s with the release of another classic, Silver Reflections, which added songs like “Blue Virginia Blues” and “Tennessee 1949” to the bluegrass canon. As the decade wore on, he drew wider recognition with higher-profile appearances – on Ralph Stanley’s star-packed Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, with Stanley and Skaggs on Austin City Limits’ 1995 “Bluegrass Special,” and at the 1997 Bill Monroe memorial show that was eventually released as The Legend Lives On: A Tribute To Bill Monroe – while continuing to tour heavily and record regularly. With Lonesome Ramblers alumnae increasingly prominent – by now, names like David Harvey, Barry Crabtree and Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane had been added to the list – as important artists in their own right, his role as a pioneer and musical role model has been acknowledged through guest turns on albums like Don Rigsby’s Empty Old Mailbox and Lane’s solo album, All For Today.
Today, Sparks is seen more clearly than ever for what he is – a compelling, influential artist who has struck a unique balance between tradition and originality, forging new paths while remaining true to the music he loves. “I love the guitar playing of a lot of folks, but Larry Sparks, he was my model – he and Del McCoury,” Lynn Morris says, and the dual mention of Sparks and McCoury testifies to the former’s musical stature. Like McCoury, he’s an old-school treasure who has been appreciated by the bluegrass community for decades. In recent years, Del McCoury’s music has finally reached a new, enthusiastic audience – it only remains for Sparks’ to do the same.