With 40 years of traveling the highways with his acoustic guitar and his Lonesome Ramblers, bluegrass musician Larry Sparks is more thankful than ever when he comes off the road for a stretch. In fact, as soon as he pulls up to his Indiana farmhouse, he’s ready to relax.
“I come in the door, I kick my shoes off, I hit the recliner and try to figure out where I’ve been,” Sparks says.
His journey is well marked on 40, an overview of his catalog boosted by his longtime friends and admirers in bluegrass, gospel and country music. Sparks’ first high-profile job came as a teenager when the Stanley Brothers hired him as a guitarist for their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1964. When Carter Stanley died two years later, Sparks stepped in on lead vocals. The first song he recorded with Ralph Stanley, “Sharecropper’s Son,” resurfaces here, with Ricky Skaggs on baritone vocal.
In addition, Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski harmonize on Sparks’ signature song, “John Deere Tractor,” giving a greater depth to the lyrics of a country boy struggling in the city. (The Judds later recorded the song after Naomi Judd heard Sparks sing it at Nashville’s Station Inn before the duo landed a record deal.) Another Sparks staple, “Tennessee 1949,” is recreated as a duet with newcomer Kevin Denney, who grew up loving the song.
Although 40 boasts numerous collaborators — Vince Gill, Andy Griggs, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Rhonda Vincent, the Whites, Paul Williams and more — Sparks closes the project by singing alone on “New Highway,” showcasing that rich baritone and guitar playing that has kept him in business for four decades.
Sparks, 57, and producer Don Rigsby picked the album’s 16 songs first, then matched them with the appropriate singers. Asked how long it took to coordinate the details, Sparks deadpans, “It took me 40 years.”
He adds, “The biggest surprise is the people that donated their time and talent to come out and be on it, out of the goodness of their heart. That was a surprise to me for sure. All these people didn’t have to be a part of it, and they wanted to. I guess they respect my music and what I’ve done in bluegrass and gospel over the years.”
Sparks has surely paid his dues. After leaving Ralph Stanley’s band, his solo career began in 1969, first recording for a small regional label, then moving to Starday for 1972’s Ramblin’ Bluegrass. (A selection from that album, “Brand New Broken Heart,” is reprised here with vocal assists from Ronnie Bowman and Russell Moore). In 1977, he recorded a tribute album to Hank Williams, one of his most enduring projects. Still, the early times were lean.
Soft-spoken yet self-confident, Sparks says, “I worked for nothing. I worked for less. I worked for zero. Worked for whatever, you know. But times get rough. If it falls apart, you’ve got to know how to put it back together.”
Sparks has always refused to move to Nashville, though his plaintive vocals might have made him a natural fit in the country format. (“You don’t just up and come to Nashville,” he says. “I’ve lived enough to know not to do that.”) He has also been careful not to lose himself in the behind-the-scenes aspects of a performer’s life.
“You just have to put that in place,” he says about the business side of music. “You have to put everything in place and learn to control this music and learn to control your business. You’re gonna have down times, and you’re gonna have lean times starting out. Anybody will — especially years ago, a lot more so than now, I think. It was tough for all of us, getting starting. I’m sure it was for Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and everybody.”
Sparks’ tenacity paid off in October when he captured his first male vocalist award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Upon hearing his name, the audience leapt to its feet, and the roar of applause clearly overwhelmed him.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I didn’t know I had this many fans and friends,'” he recalls modestly. “I’m still getting e-mails, still getting phone calls and letters coming in from people congratulating me. So it makes me feel good. I look back on my career and I could have gone other ways and other forms of music. I’d probably had more fame and more fortune. This has worked, and bluegrass and I kind of go together. I’m glad I stayed in it. I hope I’ve contributed to the music enough, too. I feel like I have. It’s been good to me.”
Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers still play between 130 and 150 dates a year, far fewer than when he started. Over the next few months, he will tour mainly in the South, with a few dates scheduled in Indiana, in towns like Wakarusa, Bean Blossom and Friendship.
His concerts feature traditional bluegrass as well as gospel music, a blend that is readily found on 40. For example, the Isaacs and the Marshall Family provide their heavenly harmonies on “Where the Sweet Water Flows” and “I Need Jesus,” respectively. Meanwhile, Tom T. Hall and wife Dixie wrote “I Want You to Meet My Friend” — about the contentment that comes from attending church during troubled times — with Sparks in mind. Hall himself sings the first verse and chorus and even provided his home studio for the recording.
“The people have sure been good to Larry Sparks over the years,” the singer says. “I feel I’ve built up a good foundation for myself and the music. I can tour about anywhere I want, to any state I want to go into. It takes a long time to be able to do that, especially when you don’t have things to boost you like the Opry, things you can lean on. I had nothing, never had anything but myself to go with. I made it work.”