Larry Sparks – Ramblin’ Man
Ramblin’ Bluegrass, reissued a couple of years ago, was a touch more polished but no less energetic, and it introduced Sparks to the national bluegrass scene. “That album helped me a lot,” he says. “I came out of the garage studio into a professional one, and they released a single with ‘Brand New Broken Heart’ on one side and ‘Kentucky Chimes’ [a blazing instrumental] on the other. They played a little more bluegrass on country radio then, and guys like Bill Mack — he had an all-night show out of Dallas — played my music.”
As has often been the case with bluegrass artists, once the essential elements of his sound were in place, Sparks’ career took on a generally predictable shape, solidified by his self-described independence and insistence on doing things his own way. Band members come and go, record labels change, but these don’t necessarily stimulate innovation and redirection, especially when the artist is an individual rather than a nominal or real democracy among several collaborators.
“If you’ve got a style, and you can lead, if you’ve got the guts to hang in there with it,” Sparks says firmly, “then you can go on. You can take other musicians, if you’ve got that sound, that style. They have to forget other people’s music, and play mine. They can learn from other things, but they’ve got to play my sound and not play somebody else’s: Don’t bring somebody else’s sound into what I’m doing.
“So that’s one thing I look for, somebody that’s easy to train and will listen to me. If they’ll do that, and listen to me, then I can help them, you see. But if a guy’s set in his ways and he’s not going to listen to me, then I’ve got a problem.”
Not surprisingly, then, plenty of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Lonesome Ramblers without substantially altering the Sparks sound. Though they’ve made notable contributions, what distinguishes his albums from one another has been mood, material and the capacity of the musicians to bring their own twists to the playing without crossing the borders of that style. When the right things align, the results are memorable, and none more so than John Deere Tractor.
“I believe that one’s held its own,” Sparks says dryly. Recorded for Lexington, Kentucky, label King Bluegrass in 1978, it stayed on the shelf for more than a year while the label was folded into Virginia bluegrass mainstay Rebel Records. Short-handed — fiddler Kirk Brandenberger and banjoist/dobro player Tommy Boyd were the only members at the time — and scratching for material, Sparks made do with what he had, and was richly rewarded, especially with the title track.
“John Deere Tractor” is an archetypal story of a country boy’s encounter with city life, cast in the form of a letter to his mother back home:
Hey mama, here’s a letter from your son
Well I think my city days are done
And it ain’t been three weeks since I came
Hey mama, I still remember what you said
Say your prayers before you go to bed
And remember city women ain’t the same…
It’s a searing portrait of desolation and defeat, held together by an instantly memorable guitar lick that serves in lieu of the usual solos and ghostly fiddle and dobro backup. Sparks renders the story with a mournful, tender intimacy that one suspects is born of his rural Hoosier home. “I’m like a John Deere tractor in a half-acre field, trying to plow a furrow where the soil is cold as steel,” he sings in the chorus, as if the image springs to mind simply from looking out his window at the cornfields surrounding his home.
Sparks did not write the song, and its authorship is a mystery that persists to this day, underlining the providential nature of the album. “I was starting to work on a new album,” he recalls, “and Cecil Trout — he owned the label and ran the studio — told me, ‘I’ve got something that I want you to hear. Just give it a listen and see, I think it’ll suit you if you give it a chance and work it out.’ So I took that tape home, and I listened to it, and yeah, it was different. But they did it fast, and I thought that took away from what I knew it could be, so I slowed it down, and put that guitar lick on it.
“But there’s no writer can be found, he can’t be found. And I don’t see why he or somebody that knew him hasn’t come forward with it. Because they’ve heard it somewhere — if not by me, then by the Judds. I don’t think theirs got much airplay, but it was on that album of theirs, and that sold a whole lot, so they had to hear it. I’d shoot straight with the guy, but I never have been able to locate him anywhere.”
Almost the same kind of happenstance brought the album’s other enduring new song. Better known today as “You Don’t Have To Move That Mountain”, the gripping gospel plea of “Great High Mountain” was a last-minute gift to Sparks from a friend and admirer. “I lacked one song finishing the album, and Keith Whitley” — like Sparks, a former Clinch Mountain Boys lead singer — “was down there at the studio, and he said, ‘I’ve got a song I think you’ll like, it’ll really suit you and your style of singing. I’m going home tonight, and I’ll bring it back tomorrow.'”
Fleshed out with an assortment of other strong selections, including a version of Allen Mills’ “Love Of The Mountains” that threatened to outshine the original recording, and one of Californian Bill Bryson’s “Girl At The Crossroads Bar” that more than threatened to do the same, John Deere Tractor stands as the quintessential Sparks album. It’s distinctive, melancholy, drenched in a kind of blues that goes beyond musical influences (though those are there too), and hand-crafted by Sparks (who also played mandolin and sang many of his own harmonies) in a rough-and-ready way born of necessity. Indeed, had he cut nothing else of the same stature since, it would be enough to guarantee him a place in the bluegrass pantheon.
Still, as enduring as the album is, it’s hardly the sum and substance of his career. He’s made other great recordings, but the kind of recognition accorded to others whose accomplishments may be no greater hasn’t really come his way. The reissue of Tractor may awaken new enthusiasm and respect — but as long as Sparks can make a living and keep on recording, he seems content to stay on his own road.
“I felt I had a style, and I knew I had the confidence in myself to do it, and to stay there and hang in there with it,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not everybody can live out of a suitcase for 40 years, and even us people that has, you wonder sometime why you’re doing this.
“But it’s all worth it. If you can make people enjoy your music around the country, it’s all worth it — it’s worth it in that way.”
ND contributing editor Jon Weisberger won the Best Liner Notes award for John Duffey’s Always In Style (Sugar Hill) at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual trade show in October. His twice-monthly diversion, the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, was recently named Best Bluegrass Band for the second time in the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.