Although Larry Sparks had endeared himself to bluegrass fans since the mid-1960s, it wasn't until 2005 that he reached significantly beyond that audience via the release of 40, his collection of duets on Rebel Records. The album's title referred to the singer's 40th year in bluegrass.
40 netted Sparks favorable reviews in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and the Grammy folk persuaded him to perform that year in honor of Alison Krauss at its highly publicized musical achievement ceremony in Nashville. The International Bluegrass Music Association voted 40 its album of the year for 2005 and, for the second year in a row, proclaimed Sparks its top male vocalist.
Now Sparks is back with his much-anticipated follow-up CD, The Last Suit You Wear. On it, he works with Don Rigsby, the same producer he employed on 40, but he has moved to a new label, Del McCoury's McCoury Music.
"My contract was up with Rebel," Sparks says by way of explanation. "I just kind of felt [it was time] for a change. [It had] nothing to do with any conflict in any way."
The album's title cut revisits the "you-can't-take-it-with-you" theme so favored by country and bluegrass songwriters. "The last suit you wear won't need no pockets," it solemnly intones. Sparks says Rigby brought him the song written by Larry Shell, Larry Williams and Kim Williams.
"At first, I didn't really care a whole lot for it," Sparks confesses. "I didn't think it suited me. But it just kept growing on me, and the more I paid attention to it, the more I liked it."
It's one of the three songs from the album he's already incorporated into his stage shows, the others being "Casualty of War," a lament for the mother of a dead soldier, and "Pretty Girls," a paean to the "little mountain gal" left behind.
Sparks includes two "oldies" in the new collection -- a cover of Hank Snow's "Those Blue Eyes Don't Sparkle Anymore" and an updated version of his own "Goodbye Little Darlin'," a song he co-wrote with his sister, Bernice Sparks, and first recorded in the early 1970s.
Of the Snow song Sparks says, "I'm not sure when he recorded it, but the sound quality on it is so good. It must have been in the late '40s or early '50s. ... I listened to his version of it and changed it a little bit -- speeded it up so it would fit bluegrass. I've had it in storage for probably six or seven years. He had some really good songs. I've got some other stuff of his I hope to some day record. ... I always liked his guitar playing."
A dazzling guitar picker himself, Sparks shows off his technique in The Last Suit with instrumental cut called "Larro."
Sparks was just 16 and still living in his native Ohio when he began playing occasional dates with the legendary Stanley Brothers. After lead singer Carter Stanley died in 1966, Sparks took his place and held that post for the next three years. Then he quit to form his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers.
He says he learned a lot about stage presence from watching Carter Stanley work. "He was pretty good at it," Sparks recalls, "and he always had something to say. He could always say it well and make that contact with the audience."
Also like Stanley, Sparks is a sharp dresser on stage, invariably clad in a tailored suit and wearing a tie, his curly hair immaculately coiffed. "I think it gives the people something to look at," he says, "[it's] more of a show look. I'll admit it's more comfortable in jeans."
He points out that his prized 1953 Martin D-28 guitar, with its artist's palette pick guard, has become part of his image as well. "Some say my pick guard is designed like my hair," he quips. "That's what a lot of the old ladies tell me."
This year, Sparks and his band will play 80 to 100 shows, a bit fewer than he's used to. When asked about it, he ventures the heretical notion that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack album have not been good for bluegrass music.
"I don't see it helped us that much, to be honest about it," he says, adding that he's never seen the movie. "I think it brought some notice to [bluegrass] from a lot of people. But I don't know if it's the right notice. It might have set us back. We don't need to be presented in a corny way. It takes some talent to play this music and play it right."
The Last Suit You Wear is proof of that.