It had been over three years since I had the opportunity to see Larry Sparks live, when I attended his concert at Meadowgreen Music Park in Clay City, KY, last weekend. Let me tell you – that’s just too long. Though Sparks joked with the crowd that he couldn’t hit a few “hot licks” due to losing his calluses after the pandemic caused a year of few performances, his show was, as always, right on point. There were plenty of classic favorites, a few numbers from his last record (2019’s New Moon Over My Shoulder), and a handful of songs from his brand new Gospel album, Ministry in Song, released just last week from Rebel Records. Those songs were a great preview of an excellent album – traditional, soulful bluegrass Gospel helmed by Sparks’s signature vocals and instantly recognizable guitar.
The lead single for the album comes from one of Sparks’s favorite artists, Hank Williams. The version of House of Gold here features simple accompaniment – just Sparks’s guitar and bass from his son, Larry D. Sparks, as well as harmonica from John Rigsby. It’s a captivating arrangement, with moving and sincere vocals. During last weekend’s concert, Sparks concluded his first set with this song, and had the whole audience riveted. Rebel has also released a top-notch video for the song that’s definitely worth a stream or two. Another Hank Williams song serves as an album closer. I Saw the Light is energetic and enjoyable, featuring a great fiddle kickoff from Ron Stewart, and nice harmonies on the chorus.
Several songs come from the pen of bluegrass singer/songwriter Daniel Crabtree, who also wrote Sparks’s recent hit, Take Me Back to West Virginia. I hadn’t heard many of Crabtree’s songs before listening to this album, but the ones here are truly a perfect fit for Sparks’s voice and style. Don’t Take Your Eyes Off of Jesus is a fine mid-tempo number with a chugging rhythm and an encouraging message drawn from the Biblical story of Peter attempting to walk on the water toward Jesus. I can see this one doing well on radio, and hope it’s soon added to his concert set list. Holdin’ On might as well be a classic Sparks number from the seventies or eighties, featuring some excellent guitar work, and reminding listeners that Jesus is always there, even during the worst times of our lives. Kudos to Lonesome Rambler Evan Wilson for some nice mandolin work here as well.
Other highlights from the album include another Crabtree cut, the expressive, guitar-guided All Over Me, which gives thanks to the Lord for His constant blessings, and a fresh version of Sparks’s own King Jesus, which originally appeared on one of his earliest albums, Bluegrass Old and New. The recording here is slightly slower than the breakneck speed of the original, but still has plenty of soul (and a great guitar break!). Longtime fans will also enjoy the appearance of two other songs from Bluegrass Old and New, the sincere and earnest Thank You Lord and the foot-tapping Where We’ll Never Say Farewell, which has a nice banjo kick from Jacob Wright.
Sparks’s recent slogan has been “Keepin’ It Real,” and that’s just what he does on Ministry on Song. All twelve tracks here are pure Sparks, from his unique vocal bends and phrasing to the sincerity with which they’re presented. For Sparks, the release of a Gospel album isn’t just a checkmark as part of a bluegrass career. It’s an opportunity to do just as the album’s title says, and minister to his fans through what he does best. In many ways, a Sparks Gospel album is the best of both worlds – not only excellent traditional bluegrass music, but also an inspirational and uplifting message that you know comes right from his heart.
Do yourself a favor, and order a copy of this album. Or better yet, get to a Sparks show this summer, hear it live, and buy it from the man himself.