Columbus, Ohio. Beyond the glow and allure of the night lights of Columbus, Larry Sparks illuminated the stage of a bluegrass festival on a hot and humid July night. He was dressed in Carolina blue from shoulders to shoes. Bluegrass dripped from his heart like a leaky faucet. He captivated with each dripping drop. He turned the knob ever so slightly from song to song, from “I Want To Thank You” to that night’s finale, “Tennessee 1949.”
“He’s why I’m standing here,” said Jamie Johnson of the Grascals, who stood in rapt attention backstage and watched Sparks with nary a flinch until the last note was sung. “Larry Sparks. Soul. It would be a blessing to be here after fifty years and still sound like he does.”
Call it another show on another night in another town in 49 years of shows and nights and towns near and extraordinarily far in the life and times of Larry Sparks. Next year marks fifty years for the emotive man from Lebanon, Ohio. He’s flipped more odometers than any odometer could read. He’s eaten more diner food than a million Mels, pumped and consumed more diesel than a convoy of Phantom 309s, shook more hands than the most politicking of politicians.
Many have come and many have gone along the bluegrass highway and yet Sparks keeps moving on. His voice leads him. When he sings, water drip-drops from his voice like tears from the soul of a man who feels. Sometimes he whispers and sometimes he wails, sometimes he cries and sometimes he sighs while yearning for times (“Tennessee 1949”), places (“Smoky Mountain Memories”), and days (“John Deere Tractor”) gone by.
“One of the most soulful singers ever,” said Sam Bush.
Sparks the Stylist
Sparks found a way. Elusive like a long-lost, though highly sought, ancient chalice, an ark of sorts—it can take years, a lifetime even, to find a style, the style that fits. Some seek and never find it. “You’ve got to find it,” Sparks said. “And when you find it, you’ve got to work it and take care of it. It’s hard to find. When I step out on stage, I’ll look different and the boys will look different. I am the leader. I am the one who found the way.”
Sparks spoke of the importance of distinction. Just as Ernest Tubb had a sound, Hank Snow had a sound, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers have and maintain a sound and style that extends from the songs they sing to the clothes they wear on stage. It’s his brand, and he never leaves home without it. “You have to be a stylist. It’s 199 percent important,” Sparks said. “If you’re a leader, you’ve got to be different. Some music, you don’t have to be a stylist. When you step into this world—bluegrass—it’s different. You better be a stylist.”
On that note alone, he followed. His heroes in music sought and found their own distinct styles, and so has Sparks. “Bluegrass is the only career I’ve had,” Sparks said. “I’m proud to be a part of it. I try to hold it up, keep it up, keep it the way it was invented. I’ve got my touch and style to it. Lester and Earl were different. The Osborne Brothers were different. Bill Monroe was different. The Stanley Brothers had their own style—Jimmy Martin, too. If you are a stylist with a recognizable voice, you can do some things with it. We just need to take care of the music. The music has changed a lot. Bluegrass doesn’t need to change.”
Style leads into look, too. While perhaps not embraced now as in days of old, stage appearance still matters to Sparks. You can’t hear a snappy suit sing or listen for a crisply-ironed pair of pants or spiffy tie to carry a note, but they do figure prominently into the show. “You need to look like a band,” Sparks said. “I know that today anything goes on stage, but we need to bring what we lost back…bring it back. I think people still appreciate the suits on stage. They want to see you look different, and you should. When you saw Porter Wagoner on stage, you knew it was Porter Wagoner on stage, and boy was he dressed. I’ve always worn a stage look. There’s times when I go into places with Levis on—real comfortable. There’s times when I don’t want to put a suit on. But that’s my job. That’s my job.”
The youngest of nine kids, Sparks was born into a farming family on September 15, 1947, in Lebanon, Ohio. Times, as for many a bucolic family in the era, were often hard. Yet, from that remains whispers of memories that brand the place and time as a faraway though cherished past. “I remember my mother cooking on a wood stove,” Sparks said with a wistful smile, spoken quietly while sitting aboard his bus one evening. “Music was never out front in my home. Dad played the guitar a little bit. Mom would sing sometimes. But I guess I just made myself do it. I had to encourage myself and I think that might have helped me creatively. You go into it alone.”
However, his mother must have noticed a spark of talent in her young son. “My mother, when I was a kid, said to stick with my guitar,” Sparks said. “‘Stick with it and you’ll do good,’ she said. I guess she thought I’d do something. Music, to be in you, to be in your blend, it’s got to be born in you. It means something to you when it’s bred right in you. It means a lot because it’s in my heart, in my soul and always has been, since I was a little kid.”
Coupled with Sparks’s early interest in music was the family radio. As with many a home in the heartland, theirs was tuned each Saturday night to the “Air Castle of the South,” AM-650 WSM, which then (as now) broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. “The Grand Ole Opry was a part of my family—Saturday night. I remember hearing the Opry on Saturday nights,” Sparks said. “My people were mountain people from Kentucky who settled in Ohio. The Opry was part of the schedule. We had a big old stand-up radio. The Opry sounded so good on it. As I grew older, I’ve kept that. I still listen to the Opry. I can envision Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. I can hear them now—how good they sounded! Then you had Ernest Tubb, the square dancers….that’s the Opry, man. They were all stylists. Roy Acuff was always so authentic. That was the Opry. Stringbean was a great one. Boy, he could come on down with it.”
A little buckeye rests quietly in a pocket inside the case that holds Sparks’s guitar. It’s accompanied the soulful singer for many a mile, sort of like a small piece of home and heart that carries him back when needed, connected to his all-important roots. Those roots lead in part to the person who, when Sparks was a child, directed him to the six-string wonder of wires and wood.
“My sister Bernice did,” Sparks said. “She was the one who put a guitar in my hands. That was my beginning when she did that. We would sing together in church and places like that. It was real hard to play a Harmony guitar—real high action. It had the f-holes in it. That’s what I learned to play on.”
Like many a musician, bluegrass and otherwise, Sparks first sang in church. “It was at a church over a store, a Pentecostal church in Lebanon, Ohio,” Sparks recalls. “I recorded in 1953. Me and my sister sang together. It was a little homemade thing. We did ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ and ‘Building On The Sand.’ We did that in our home. I’ve still got it.”
As little Larry Sparks preened an ear ever closer to the music that he loved, his attention caught on to the finer guitarists of the day. “Then I heard Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Bill Napier, the Stanley Brothers with George Shuffler,” Sparks said. “The Stanley Brothers, they had a beautiful blend. To me, the four bands out front were Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Reno & Smiley. They led the way. I would switch back and forth from WSM and WLAC. They played a lot of bluesy stuff, Slim Harpo, it’s got a lot of soul in it. It’s a natural thing for me, the soul. I just feel what I’m singing.”
Sparks said that he sees a parallel between he and blues icon B.B. King. “He can take one note and make it sound like fifty,” Sparks said. “His playing is similar to mine. We don’t play a lot of notes. It’s more of a slide feel thing. I like to play off the top of my head.”
Rock’n’roll’s train rumbled and shook the nation amid Sparks’s latter teenage years. Like talented teens across the country, he wanted to play the riveting music, too. Consequently, he drifted into and out of a spate of country and rock bands while in high school in Indiana. “I played electric guitar,” Sparks said. “I love Fats Domino. I could listen to him all day. I did a little bit of rock’n’roll, but my love was with bluegrass music. That’s where my love is, with bluegrass and gospel. That’s where my heart was—still is.”
Long-time and new fans alike have seen Sparks with but one guitar, his beloved 1954 Martin D-28. Festooned with the familiar black pickguard, odds are extremely high that few if any of his fans have seen him on stage with another guitar in hand. “I bought that in 1966…three hundred dollars…best I’ve ever spent,” Sparks said. “Bought it in Cincinnati, Ohio. There was a bluegrass bar, the Ken-Mill Tavern. It was a staff guitar there. I got a hold of it and liked that guitar. It was for me. I had to tone the guitar to make it sound the way I wanted. You play tone into them. You put that sound into the tone that you want. It was really different.”
For a man long described and heralded as being different, the guitar fits Sparks like boots on a cowboy. Wherever he’s roamed, he’s tugged his guitar right alongside. “Had it when I worked with Ralph Stanley. It’s been on all the records and every show I’ve ever played. It’s been through some hard knocks, but it’s hanging in there. You see all the scars? I’ve had it in places I’d rather not go into today—everything in between. That guitar has been everywhere, man. I can be off for a few days, but that guitar is right there and it picks me up and back in the groove again.”
However, Sparks never named his prized guitar. “No, I never did,” Sparks said. “But, it is a ‘she.’ I’ll say, ‘She’s a good guitar’ or ‘She’s my guitar.’ But I never did name her.”
Stanley Brothers, 1964
Though he had recorded with the Slade Mountain Boys in 1962, Sparks first recorded solo in 1965 in Dayton, Ohio, on the Jalyn label. “We did ‘It’s Never Too Late’ by the Stanley Brothers and an instrumental, the ‘Sandy Mountain Breakdown,’” Sparks said. “I asked my mother what I should name that instrumental record, and she said why not name it ‘Sandy Mountain Breakdown.’”
Sparks’s first go-around with the Stanley Brothers came in 1964. He was working at the time in the Irvin Mackintosh & His Band outfit in the Middletown, Ohio, area. “I worked in his band—not bad,” Sparks said. “Paul ‘Moon’ Mullins had known Ralph and Carter. They came through Dayton, Ohio, from time to time. Well, they came through one time and needed a guitar player. Paul told them about me. Carter asked me to come out and play. I worked part-time with them for a while, Fall of ’64. We did some dates in Ohio, Michigan, Virginia.”
Sparks was but 17. Like white roots in a dyed-black head of hair, Sparks’s excitement showed through clearly during his first show with the Stanley Brothers. “That first show was in Hamilton, Ohio. I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Carter told me to kick off ‘Rank Stranger.’ I kicked off too fast. He said, ‘Oh boy, you kicked that off too fast.’ Boy, Carter sure had soul and heart.”
Though brief, his initial time spent with the Stanley Brothers served as a preview of things to come for Sparks. Carter Stanley died on December 1, 1966. Three months later, in February 1967, Sparks was hired to essentially fill the gaping wide vacancy as Ralph continued onward.
“The first time I ever saw Larry was shortly after Carter Stanley passed away,” said Dave Freeman of Rebel Records. “They had a memorial show for him outside Washington, D.C., around Bethesda, Maryland. I believe it was Ralph’s first appearance without Carter. I drove down from New York. Larry struck me as, ‘Wow, you couldn’t do better to replace Carter.’ His phrasing, the tone in his voice, it was uncanny.”
Sparks was only 19 years old. His lack of age shed no indication whatsoever as to the breadth of his musical acumen and prowess. “Back when Carter Stanley died, we bluegrass fans were wondering, what will Ralph do?” recalls Sam Bush. “When Larry stepped into that role, it was like Ralph didn’t miss a beat. He’s so soulful.”
It helped that he’d learned Stanley Brothers tunes by then, had shared the stage with them, and was far from bluegrass greenhorn status. As with his boss at the time, Sparks seemed beyond his years. “I didn’t think of him as a kid,” Freeman said. “He seemed mature, really with it for his age.”
Sparks solo, 1969
Still, a fire burned inside Sparks that, even alongside Ralph Stanley in the heralded Clinch Mountain Boys, needed a more widespread outlet. Leaders don’t follow. Even though not quite 22 years old, Sparks thought he had something that would not quite emerge while working as a sideman. “Nothing against Ralph, but I just felt I could go into my own thing and make it work,” Sparks said. “I felt I could be a leader and a stylist. I didn’t know. I felt like I could.”
Backbone and belief in himself prevailed in the absence of actual experience as a bandleader. “Just because I had been with the Stanley Brothers, I couldn’t rely on that.” Sparks said. “I had to come out of that world and it wasn’t easy to do. I had to get my own style and yet stay in that old vein, yet give it my touch. It’s a long road, my friend. Music is a tough business. It’s not just the music. You’ve got to take care of business, and it’s worked for me.”
First came struggles from broken-down buses to bandmembers coming and going, finding his own sound, convincing promoters to book you, and then making it to the shows on time and staying in time while there. There’s the fans to satisfy, family to take care of, bills to pay, gas tanks to fill, albums to record and so forth. Of course, it starts with the songs. “You’ve got to find the right song,” Sparks said. “When you find the right lyrics and melody that touches your heart, when it touches me, it’s a Larry Sparks song. With my style of singing, I can tweak it a little bit. I arrange all of my songs.”
The 1970s was the decade of discovery for Sparks. He was a talented man in search of a sound that he heard in his head. The expanse of record labels for whom he recorded reflects his quest, a search of sorts that paralleled his search for that style…his style.
His first solo album, “Ramblin’ Guitar,” found a home on the Pine Tree label. Band personnel included his sister, Bernice, on rhythm guitar, Joe Isaacs on banjo, David Cox on mandolin, and Lloyd Hensley on bass. “The first album was recorded in Hamilton, Ohio. It was a start,” Sparks said. “I had a little of the Stanley flow in it. I had to get away from that. I didn’t want to sound like I was copying the Stanleys. People collect that album now. There weren’t many of them printed.”
Though his first album didn’t firmly establish the Sparks sound, it did in some ways provide a look into the future. For example, he chose Hank Williams’ “Six More Miles (To The Graveyard)” for inclusion on the album. “That song fit me,” he said. “I recorded it again a couple of albums later and put more of my sound on it.”
Sparks again turned to Pine Tree for his second album, New Gospel Songs. “I was working on finding my style,” Sparks said. “It still wasn’t where I wanted to go. My third album was on Old Homestead, Bluegrass Old And New. I was digging in. It was time to start happening. I was making roots. Well, they took time. Even today, in 2012, it takes time.”
Skip a few years to 1974s’s The Footsteps Of Tradition on the King Bluegrass label. “I had gotten to where I was solid with it,” Sparks said. “That Footsteps album put me in the bluegrass thing really solid. Every so often, you have those highlight albums, turning point albums in your career.”
Yet…“That wasn’t really where I still wanted to be,” Sparks said. “That was a different album. They are good songs. They were fresh songs. We did ’em our way. It played a big part in my early career. I was in contention. It’s important to get to that point. It had taken a long time to do that.”
Still, the Larry Sparks sound that marks his music nowadays, and for many years prior, remained elusive for its creator. A batch of albums on King Bluegrass followed, including Sparklin’ Bluegrass in 1975, and You Could Have Called and Christmas In The Hills in 1976. Then came Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams on County Records in 1977. “I did it because I liked him and I have a heart for his music,” Sparks said. “It did well for us then and it still does well. It gets a lot of talk.”
During the course of Sparks’s fifty-year career, gospel music weaves a steady flow like a river through a mountain. One sort of makes way for the other, and each combines to complete the music of the man whose sound is unmistakably bluegrass yet bridges into gospel, too. “It’s a good thing to do,” Sparks said of gospel music. “I don’t look at gospel music as a project to make money off of, to pull in bucks. I do gospel music because it uplifts Jesus Christ. I do it from my heart. In return, He blesses you. It’s like giving an offering in church. You give from the heart. I don’t do it to expect to get anything back.”
The Gospel way is the Sparks way
More than two decades have passed since Sparks last recorded an album that didn’t have at least one gospel song contained therein. To ignore his Christian side would be tantamount to slighting the mountains of Ralph Stanley, to looking past the blues of Bill Monroe, the jazz of Jethro Burns, the tradition meets progression of Sam Bush, and so forth. “All things are possible through Jesus Christ if it’s His will to do so,” Sparks said. “Being Christian, we’ve got a manual to go by, and that’s the Bible. We fail. None of us are perfect. Years ago, I turned all of my talent, all of my business, all of my career over to Jesus Christ. I asked Him to help me. And He has. You’ve got to give your heart, your soul to the Lord, put Him first. Everything else comes after that.”
For Sparks, that moment came in the early 1990s. Perhaps quite consequently, his career escalated to its zenith soon thereafter, such that various realms of recognition began to follow. But to be bluntly accurate, neither record sales nor fame, fortune, acclaim, and so forth led him to embrace the Lord. He was led by his heart. “I thought, ‘I’m singing these gospel songs, but what am I doing?’” Sparks said. “I hadn’t really given my heart to Him. He let me know that He meant business. It’s the best thing I ever did. If I never play another note of music, it’s the best thing I ever did, to turn myself over to Jesus Christ. When I leave this world, I want to go rest with Jesus.”
By then, with nearly a half-century of living and making music, traveling the country and seeing the world through the windshield of a bus or from behind a microphone on stage, mankind had painted multiple pictures for Sparks. It’s a hard world, and he could see that. Pain etches the faces of many a person, and he could see that, too. “This world is just gnawing at people,” Sparks said. “Nowadays, people are in such a hurry, they forget about other people. It pulls people this way and it pulls people that way. The devil could put me in a brand new bus. The devil could prosper you. The devil could fill my calendar with dates. But you’d be in a wicked, terrified world.”
Sparks’s world took a major turn by the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s. As his first decade as a solo artist neared completion, things began to emerge like an 18-wheeler clears a bank of fog. “One morning I woke up and it was after I was in the business for a while,” Sparks said. “I got up. I thought, ‘What is going on? All my bills are paid. Hey, I’m doing good! I’m finally making it in the business.’ I was actually making a decent living in the business. That was in the mid-1970s. It’s not an easy business. You really have to have it in your soul and go for the long haul. It’s how you handle things when it’s not good. You’ve got to stand up and be strong. Take care of yourself. Take care of your music.”
That general thought helped lead Sparks to signing with Rebel Records. Well, signing isn’t exactly the correct word. “It was always a handshake deal until very recently,” Freeman said. “Maybe only one or two albums were done with a contract. I wouldn’t trade [the experience] for anything. It’s been an honor. I was really impressed with [the album],” Freeman said. “At the same time, I thought it was really different. I couldn’t imagine any bluegrass act doing it at that time. It stood out.”
To Rebel, Freeman, Sparks, and the bluegrass community alike, the album John Deere Tractor cast a mark much in the way that genuine love at first sight beams anew. No one saw it coming. It was unpredictable. Yet John Deere Tractor warmed the hearts and tweaked the ears of those who accepted it as a new day dawned. “It’s one of our landmark albums,” Freeman said. “His Silver Reflections album I also felt was a masterpiece. Nobody has as many signature songs as Larry. I think of Larry as a distinctive artist.”
Sparks’s distinctive voice and phrasing, guitar playing, general approach, and overall style finally matched that of the sound he’d long heard in his head with John Deere Tractor. Then as now, the album serves as a benchmark, a must-have for any bluegrass collection. For longtime fans of Sparks, the album points to the moment when it all came together for him. For new fans, the album serves as the starting point for exploration into Sparks’s career.
“That album, I think I came into my singing, more of me, on that album than on the previous albums,” Sparks said. “It was the highlight of my career. People that are new to the business are buying that album. A lot of young fans are coming into the business and buying that album.”
Once found, Sparks’s sound has remained steady ever since. From song choice to album production values, musicians hired, and keys employed, he’s guarded his sound with abiding love and care much as one protects a loved one. His music, well, it is a loved one in Sparks’s life.
“Larry has a spotless track record for doing albums,” Freeman said. “You can put two albums together of his signature songs. Larry does his own thing. I’ve always respected that. He has a knack for finding great material.”
Though the day dripped with heat and humidity after a performance in Columbus, Ohio, Sparks signed autographs and posed for pictures with every fan who wanted one…or two…or, yes, even three or four. Many of them recalled brief, though heralded, moments from days long gone when they met or spoke with Sparks. Several asked if he remembered that spark of a moment, too. The gracious bluegrasser smiled each time, occasionally placed a hand on a shoulder, looked the fan in their eyes, and indicated, ‘Why yes, how could I forget time spent with you?’
“A lot of people say, ‘We heard your music and it brought us to bluegrass,’” Sparks said. “If you do that, you’ve accomplished something. The fans, the bluegrass fans, are good people. They’ll stick with you. They’ll support you. You’ve got to gain their trust in you, that you’ll be with them tomorrow. They buy my music. They come to my shows. I’m thankful for my fans.”
A star-struck man eased up to Sparks. He said that he would never forget having shared a conversation with him back in the 1970s after a show. Sparks shook hands with the man as if he were an old friend. The fan asked if he recalled the encounter from thirty years ago. Sparks said that he did. The man walked away a foot taller, fifty pounds lighter, and left with a memory for the next thirty years. “Until the last one has gone,” Sparks said later while cooling down on his bus. “I’m there for them, the fans. I’m here because of those fans.”
Sincerity, that’s Sparks. “I don’t forget those people,” he said. “The fans are very important. I appreciated the people who have followed me and my music. I get cards and letters all the time about this and that song, especially the gospel songs, that meant something to them. That means a lot to me. They mean a lot to me.
Sparks’s band, the Lonesome Ramblers, means a lot to him, too. Past members include Joe Isaacs to Jackie Kincaid in later years. “I’ve had a lot of ’em,” Sparks said. “I can’t count ’em. Stuart Duncan came out when he was 18. He recorded some with me. I guess the longest were David Harvey and Barry Crabtree. Scott Napier stayed about eight years, maybe.”
Kincaid’s quick to explain why many a Lonesome Rambler remained alongside Sparks. “He’s the most kind, most compassionate person you’ll ever meet,” Kincaid said. “He’s a good Christian. You won’t find a better man than Larry Sparks to pick for or to be around. I was with him thirty years ago in ’79 and ’80. I came back in ’06. I quit in ’08 and came back in March 2011. I’m not planning on quitting again.”
No wonder. Why would a sideman quit Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours or Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmasters, and so forth? To get a better deal elsewhere? Perhaps. But good luck on that account.
“Larry Sparks is up there with George Jones,” Kincaid said. “He can take one word and wrench all the water out of it. When people hear him, they fall in love with his voice.”
Sparks’s lifestyle in some ways matches his voice. It’s pure, without clutter, straightforward, no pretension. When the road leads back home, that’s Greensburg, Indiana. He’s not surrounded by fellow bluegrass or country stars, doesn’t live in a mansion on a hill, isn’t exactly living on property that’s grand such that folks turn their heads and stare when they pass him by. “We don’t even have cable television,” Sparks said. “We’re not TV people. I have no interest in keeping up with a hundred channels on TV.”
No cable television, but home is where his heart is. He’s comfortable where he hangs his suits and wears pressed Levis, where he parks his bus and tinkers on old cars, where he’s not Larry Sparks bluegrass legend, but Larry Sparks husband and father and grandfather, too. “My wife, Pam, is everything wrapped up in one to me,” Sparks said. “She can bring a lot of light when the day is dark.”
Most folks might imagine singing to themselves in the car or in the shower, perhaps while moving from room to room at home if they owned a voice on par with Sparks’s gift. “I don’t sing anything in the car. I don’t hardly sing in the shower,” Sparks said. “I don’t sing at home unless I’m working on new songs. That’s the only time I sing.” But, he listens plenty at home.
“Just like when I was a kid back in Ohio, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on my family’s big old radio,” Sparks said. “It would pop and crackle, fade in and out. I still like that. I still love to hear the Grand Ole Opry on those old tube radios and to hear it pop and crackle and fade in and out. I own a 1938 Zenith radio. When I bought that radio, the first time I turned it on, it was on 650-WSM and the Grand Ole Opry.”
Fads fit Larry Sparks like hip-hop on the Opry. Don’t look for it anytime soon. So don’t look for iPods or iPads in his hands. You’ll not find a bag of golf clubs wedged into his car’s trunk. Wait for him at the local tattoo parlor and you’ll wait a long while. “I like my Levis ironed and static on my radio,” Sparks said. “I’ve even got an old car with an eight-track. I don’t golf. Me and my son fool around with a lot of old cars and trucks, stuff out of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I’ve got a ’38 Buick I’m working on. I’ve got a ’57 Olds I’m tweaking. We’re just simple people. You come to our house and it’s taters and beans or beans and taters. I have a garden. I’ve got some hogs. I might get some chickens.”
Make no mistake, Sparks loves his home life. Yet his life in music abound in his house, particularly in his office. Only steps away and parked in a large garage sits the wheels that carry him to destinations far and wide, his bus. “Sometimes I’ll pull my bus up by my window, start it up, and I’ll sleep good,” Sparks said. “I love that diesel sound.”
And when that diesel sound aims away from home and to another show in another town, there are some things from home that he likes to bring along—namely, food. “Those little Moon Pies. You can get ’em in different flavors,” he said. “Put a strong pot of coffee on, have a Moon Pie, and hit a groove.”
Look for a new album next year from Sparks. He’s planning to record it this fall and winter in recognition of his fifty years in bluegrass. He said that he’s not quite sure of how he wants to go about recording it, but the general plan is to include an array of Lonesome Ramblers current and past.
He’s owned eight buses, encountered more breakdowns and blown engines than he wishes to recall and ridden more roads than a map may seem to hold. His travels have taken him to more stages than he can remember and to more fans than one can count. He’s traveled fifty years of highways and byways and back roads, performed for fifty years of fans, stayed in fifty years of motels, eaten in fifty years of greasy spoon diners, and met more Mels and Alices and good-time Charlies than one memory can store.
“Fifty years, it went fast,” Sparks said. “Fifty years, I’ve enjoyed every one of them. Fifty years that I’ve given my life to the music, and I don’t regret one year of it. I would do it again! I love the music. I love the fans. There’s no business like show business. It is a privilege and an honor to be in this business of bluegrass.”
No secret shrouds Sparks’s lifelong love of bluegrass. It’s known. Same goes for gospel music. He could and has on occasion considered recording a country album. He’s a fan of blues music, big band, too. But bluegrass, that’s family. Other sounds may live in the neighborhood, but bluegrass is home for Larry Sparks.
“This is great music. It’s pure. It’s real and it’s family music,” he said. “It’s like the old country music. Today, there’s still a big market for what we do. If God let’s me live long enough, maybe we can keep things rolling and not let it die, not let it get away from us. We can’t follow the world. We can’t change. I can’t change and be like them. I won’t do it. I’m not for change. I’m for improvement.”
Many a wheel has turned in Sparks’s fifty years. Millions of miles clicked away amid road signs with speeding limits as time kept speeding by, too. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, time waits for no one, and it certainly hasn’t and will never wait for Larry Sparks either. “It’s gone. It’s come and gone,” Sparks said. “Time. Time is short. If I live to be a hundred, it’s a short life. Think about it. I’ve only got 35 more years and I’ll be a hundred. It’s short. Time don’t last long. You can’t buy more time. I’ve not done everything I want to do yet. I’m not finished. There’s a lot of songs to sing.”
Hall of Fame
Sparks has paved the bluegrass highway with songs that lead him directly en route to the IBMA Hall Of Fame. He’s on the outskirts of town, awaiting entry, a green light that says, ‘Welcome Larry Sparks, member of the IBMA Hall Of Fame. “Oh, it’s overdue,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of people who aren’t in there, should be in there. The original Seldom Scene isn’t in there. That isn’t right to me. Larry is most definitely in that category.”
Jamie Johnson of the Grascals paused in momentary thought upon mention of Sparks’s eventual Hall Of Fame entry. “If I could sing like Larry Sparks, I’d be in the Hall Of Fame,” Johnson said. “He’s not, but he should be.”
Greatness doesn’t follow. It launches and leads. For nearly all of his fifty years in music, Sparks has forged his own way while traveling well-trod paths laid before him. His road continues. “I’m not going to change and do something else,” Sparks said. “I have to follow what’s in my heart. You’ve got to be independent with your music. You don’t let it control you. You control it—put it where it needs to be. You put your stamp on it. Look around through the years at the entertainers we talked about.”
Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, etc. “They did this one thing,” Sparks said. “They weren’t followers. And it isn’t easy to find your own style. I tried to create what I was thinking, and I did. I did that by not listening to a lot of music. If I had, it definitely would have had a bearing. I have to get away from music to find my music.”
There’s depth to Larry Sparks much as there was with Hank Williams. “I think he’s the Hank Williams of bluegrass,” said country singer Andy Griggs. “He has soul. When you sit down and listen to Larry Sparks, he’ll take you to where he’s singing about. Larry is my absolute favorite singer of all time. He’s the greatest singer on the planet.”
“There’s been a lot of lines on the highway,” Larry said while looking through the windows of his bus one evening as dusk turned to night. “Truck stops one after another. Do the show…ride…truck stops. That’s my world right through those windows. Those windows are my friend.”
He paused, chin in hand, mind in thought, and said, “Thank God I’ve been able to make it in this business. God is the most treasured thing to me. God keeps me going. If it wasn’t for Him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And buddy, I’m planning to be around a long time.”
So, as he’s about to get a good hold on the golden rung, Sparks’s climb continues as it has during his prior 49 years in the bluegrass world. Talent strides alongside humility, professionalism with affability, seriousness matches charm, and humanity meets humor. So goes the walk of a legend unlike any other. So goes the walk of a man who’s just a man.