Larry Sparks – Ramblin’ Man
To reach the home of Larry Sparks, you have to get off the interstate and head into the cornfields of southeast Indiana. The roads there run between farms, around ponds and cemeteries, and through towns that are little more than run-down gas stations or occasional convenience stores. It’s a different kind of country than the Appalachian hills and hollers, but home to the same sorts of daily struggles and country ways of living. When things take root here, they live a long time and don’t give up easily.
Sparks isn’t a native of the area, but his family moved to this corner of the state from nearby southwest Ohio as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, and he’s been here ever since. He was just entering his teens then, but he’d already set his feet on the bluegrass path, and though it’s been a hard way to go, he’s never taken another. He’s paid a price for it, and for living in this out-of-the-way place, too, but like his farm neighbors, Sparks has persevered on his own terms and in his own way.
“I guess I’m kind of independent,” he says wryly, explaining why he’s chosen to remain here, do his own booking and generally keep to himself. “I’ve got nothing against the Nashville scene, but I never have gone in that direction. I don’t really feel like moving to Nashville would do anything for me. I’ve been cutting the path myself, and I’m still cutting it. I’m out there, you know, just doing it, and I’ll take the roughest road sometimes, not the easy one.”
What has provoked that comment is a question drawing a contrast between his career and that of Del McCoury, who did relocate to Nashville some ten years ago, and who attributes his heightened visibility in substantial part to the move. It’s not an idle comparison, either, for though they’re separated in age by eight years (McCoury was born in 1939, Sparks in 1947), they are among the few remaining bluegrass artists who spent the 1960s apprenticing with the first generation before starting their own bandleader careers. There weren’t that many of them in the first place — it’s something of a lost generation for bluegrass — and with the passage of years, the number has declined even further.
Like McCoury, Sparks has developed a distinctive sound and a remarkable body of work. Still, even a decades-long full-time career hasn’t brought him nearly the same degree of acclaim, and the reasons aren’t really self-evident. Certainly they’re not to be found in the music, for Sparks has created some of the most elemental and powerful bluegrass that’s ever been made.
Unfortunately, much of the recorded evidence that Sparks enthusiasts would cite to make the point languishes in obscurity. Though several masterpieces such as Silver Reflections and his Hank Williams tribute are on CD, some of his best albums are out of print — many on long-gone labels — while others are available only on cassette.
The good news is that, at long last, that’s starting to change. With a recent gospel compilation (The Old Church Yard), a new gospel disc (I Want To Be Like Jesus), and the forthcoming reissue of a certified masterpiece, John Deere Tractor, there’s some hope that the phlegmatic Sparks may finally get his due as one of the genre’s greatest treasures.
Sparks began playing guitar and singing around the time Hank Williams died, and by the time his family moved to Indiana, he was already performing at churches and community gatherings with his sister. Bluegrass was hard to come by in those days; Sparks recalls that he didn’t see Bill Monroe in person until the early 1960s, and the Stanley Brothers until a few years later.
“There weren’t a whole lot of people to listen to back then, and with no record player, you just had to catch it on the radio when you could,” he says. “And the only ones in this music were Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys and a couple of others; that was about it.”
Nevertheless, by 1965 he was familiar enough with the music, and accomplished enough at playing it, that he landed a job as the Stanley Brothers’ lead guitarist. By his account, it more or less fell into his lap as the result of a recommendation by DJ and fiddler Paul “Moon” Mullins. He remained with the Stanleys until Carter passed away in late 1966. When Ralph made the decision to carry on, Sparks was quickly promoted to lead singer. He spent another couple of years with Stanley, finally departing to lead his own group, the Lonesome Ramblers.
“I just felt that I had something different to offer — my singing, my style,” he says. “I tried to do the best I could for him back then, but Ralph was going to keep his sound, and he should. But you’ve got to have one stylist, one leader. I would have to be a Stanley clone, you see, which is OK, but I needed to move on and have something of my own. I felt I could do it.”
It took him a while to really hone in on what having something of his own meant, but in 1972 he released a pair of albums that offered a unique and compelling kind of music, setting the tone for his career right up to the present day. By then, he’d grown into the “one stylist, one leader” role and had recruited a band capable of following him into new territory — or, more accurately, one that could help him get there.
Mandolinist Wendy Miller and banjo player Mike Lilly were anything but Stanley clones. Lilly, especially, brought a rich and varied approach to the banjo — the antithesis of Ralph’s old-time-flavored “mountain” style. Though young, he had already mastered the driving style of Earl Scruggs and the dizzying single-string leads of Don Reno, combining them with an almost manic intensity and a healthy measure of his own ideas that made his playing deliciously unpredictable. It was almost like having two banjo players in the band, and since Sparks was also featuring plenty of his own lead guitar, the Lonesome Ramblers were unusually energetic for a four-piece ensemble.
The out-of-print Bluegrass Old And New was the group’s first effort, and it remains a stunning piece of work, if occasionally flawed (there was time to fix only the most grating mistakes). Though it included a couple of songs the Stanleys had done, the music was already substantially different, not only in the explosive instrumental work but in Sparks’ gripping vocals. No less mournful and lonesome than Carter’s, his voice was higher, and — like his approach to the guitar — more blues-inflected.
“I’d heard some blues on the radio, but I never had listened to anybody that close,” Sparks says. “I just took what I heard and stayed there, you know. I always liked that real simple stuff, just guitar and harmonica — the simple stuff is the hardest to play, and the prettiest, I think. I’d heard some of that when I was growing up, and then it all kind of just stayed together, and I just happened to come out of there someways.”