He’s called “The Youngest Of The Old Timers.”
In 1963, Paul “Moon” Mullins, a former fiddler for The Stanley Brothers and popular bluegrass DJ, introduced Carter and Ralph to a gifted sixteen year old guitar picker and singer from Lebanon, OH. After an audition, Larry Sparks was hired as a Clinch Mountain Boy, and went on to become one of our music’s biggest icons.
His unique style of picking and singing is often imitated but never duplicated. To Sparks, the guitar and the voice are one.
“I play the guitar like I sing, so when I take a break I’m playing it like I sing that song. I sing the melody, play the melody, play the words, play from my heart and soul with feeling. There’s other fine guitar players out there, but the way I play is different and you know who it is.”
Sparks has more signature songs that anyone (John Deere Tractor, A Face In The Crowd, You Ain’t Lived, I’ve Just Seen The Rock Of Ages) and that list continues to grow with each album. When looking at The Best Of Larry Sparks: Bound To Ride (REB-CD-7522), there are more tracks represented from one album in particular, than any other.
Silver Reflections was released on Rebel Records in 1988. Viewed as one of his greatest albums (quite an accomplishment looking at his illustrious career, closing in on fifty years), Silver Reflections holds many songs which have not only become classic Sparks songs, but bluegrass standards.
Possibly the most well-known Larry Sparks song, Tennessee 1949, starts Silver Reflections off with a bang! From the pen of Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, it has been sung in just about every jam session since this album hit the record table in 1988. This classic song about a forgotten time has been a bluegrass favorite for decades, and it was first heard on Silver Reflections.
Tennessee 1949 is just one of a handful of Goble and Drumm tunes which appear on Silver Reflections. Legendary songwriters in our business, they have written such hits as Julie Anne Come On Home, Colleen Malone, Poet With Wings, Big Spike Hammer, She’s Walking Through My Memory, You Can Keep Your Nine Pound Hammer, Back In Hancock County, and more. Also on this album by Goble and Drumm are I’d Like To Be A Train, Natural Thing To Do, and Blue Virginia Blue.
Blue Virginia Blue is a lonesome, tear-stain of a tune. You feel complete pity for the man whose heart has been stomped on in this song. Sparks delivers the lyrics beautifully, and the picking is flawless.
Moving like a locomotive, Goble and Drumm’s I’d Like To Be A Train is a hard-hitting, straight ahead bluegrass song. What’s more bluegrass than heartbreak and trains? Honestly, it’s got it all. Sparks’ rhythm guitar steers this steam engine all the way through. It sounds like one Sparks’ old boss, Carter Stanley, could have written had he made it to the 1980’s.
Another signature Sparks song, Kentucky Girl exemplifies traditional bluegrass. This is an old Charlie Moore tune that Larry revitalized. Its lyrics have a touch of elegance, and paint such a poignant picture of young love.
“Does that old moon shine on the blue grass tonight,
as it did on the night you first kissed me?”
The album also features two instrumentals: Richmond and Cruisin’ Timber. They compliment each other quite nicely, and show two key sides to Sparks’ style. Richmond is very grassy. It blazes forth with a vengeance, and demands your attention, featuring Barry Crabtree’s banjo right up front. David Harvey’s mandolin playing is superb in Richmond as well. Sparks really allows his band to shine in this original he co-wrote with Scott Vestal.
Cruisin’ Timber is more of a bluesy number. It’s subtle charm is what attracts the listener. The melody will make you pat your foot and will be stuck in your head all day.
One of my favorites on Silver Reflections is Sparks’ version of A.P. Carter’s You’re The Girl Of My Dreams. The chorus of “Cause you’re the girl of my dreams, but it seems my dreams will never come true” will really hit you hard.
It is no coincidence that Sparks was the first to fill Carter Stanley’s place on stage beside Dr. Ralph; he has the Carter-esque quality of making a happy lyric happier and a sad one sadder. This song is a great example of that. When Sparks sings about he and his old flame on Lover’s Lane, you can hear the joy in his voice. However, when he lets you know that these dreams will never come true, you can hear the tears welling up in his eyes. The listener has no doubt that Sparks can empathize deeply with this story of what a man once had, and what will never be.
Other songs on this album include Old Faded Picture, Flatt & Scruggs’ Please Don’t Wake Me, Ernest Tubb’s I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye, and another true Sparks hit, Don’t Neglect The Rose.
Silver Reflections (REB-CD-1654) is a landmark album in bluegrass and is a defining moment in the career of Larry Sparks. It is available from County Sales and the Classic Country Connection, and can also be downloaded on iTunes.