When did you first hear the music of Larry Sparks? That seems like a good question to ponder as we consider his latest album, Lonesome and Then Some… A Classic 50th Celebration.
For me it was 40 years ago, sometime in 1974 after the release of The Lonesome Sounds of Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers. I was new to bluegrass music, at least on a serious level, and I had taken the suggestion of Dave Freeman in his County Sales newsletter to pick up this record. It was a good’n, as Dave had indicated, and I fell hard for the emotive, plaintive sound of Sparks’ voice.
Gradually I worked backwards through his time with Ralph Stanley, even as I continued picking up the new albums he released with regularity, up to and including the milestone 2005 recording, 40, which marked his 40th anniversary in bluegrass. Some were slickly produced, others were down-and-dirty, in-and-out sessions, but every one had that something special, the extra-lonesome sound we associate with this timeless bluegrass balladeer.
So now looking back at 50 years running the roads, performing his unique brand of bluegrass deeply marked by his short time with The Stanley Brothers and later with Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks can reflect easily on a life well lived, and a career well spent. But don’t look on that as an epitaph; Sparks is still going strong.
While he was in pre-production a couple of years back for this album, Larry told us that he was planning to record both with his touring band, and to reunite with as many of his mentors and musical influences as he could manage. And with our first generation bluegrass masters aging and passing over, that isn’t always an easy thing to do.
Here we have Sparks singing duets with Ralph Stanley, Bobby Osborne, Curly Seckler and via a recording from 1995, Bill Monroe. Jesse McReynolds joins in a trio on Hank Williams’ I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing as do Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall for a reworking of Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures, which he had done on the above referenced The Lonesome Sounds in ’74. These are artists who, like Larry, are more than just singers. They have each left a major impression on bluegrass music and how it is performed, several from the earliest days.
>The material chosen also displays a respect for the music of the pioneers, with a powerful rendition of Monroe’s Letter From My Darling with Bobby Osborne, and Carter Stanley’s Loving You Too Well, with Ralph reprising his tenor from the 1957 Stanley Brothers session. Larry also turns in a strong version of Flatt & Scruggs’ Dim Lights, Thick Smoke with Curly Seckler on tenor and Bobby O on mandolin.
He’s brought in several new songs as well, including Connie Leigh’s In Those Days, about a visit with an elderly friend who reminisces about their old days, and a pair from one of the best writers of traditional bluegrass today, Sandy Shortridge. Journey To The Light is a new entry in the coal mining genre, celebrating seeing the sun again each morning after a night shift down the mountain, and We Prayed, a mega-lonesome song of survival in a dreadful storm.
A Sparks record would feel unfinished without a solo vocal and guitar piece, and Sparks complies with a bluesy Savior’s Precious Blood, showcasing his special approach to blending lead and rhythm guitar.
Closing out the set is the live cut with Monroe, In The Pines, recorded at Bean Blossom when Bill was 83 years of age, one year to the day prior to the great man’s passing. The falsetto ending gives you chills, just before you hear Monroe remark, “That’s a fine old Southern number, there.” What a slice of bluegrass history!
Special kudos to the current version of The Lonesome Ramblers. Tyler Mullins is always there with the appropriate lick on banjo, and David Harvey again demonstrates his mastery of the mandolin. Jackie Kincaid’s tenor matches note-for-note with Larry’s lead, and Larry D. Sparks is right there on the bass. Guest fiddler Ron Stewart is brilliant throughout.
All the great material, the stellar guest artists, and the solid support from The Lonesome Ramblers aren’t the reasons you’ll want Lonesome and Then Some in your collection, though they add mightily to the enjoyment. It’s a new Larry Sparks album, and that’s reason enough to pick it up right away.