It’s an illusion you can get sometimes when you’ve been driving hard for a long while: that you are standing still while the unheeding road slips under you. Then you shake it off and things slip back into their regular order.
Larry Sparks is going places.
Tom Teepen starts his exposé on “traveling bluegrass” with metaphoric purpose. Larry Sparks was literally going somewhere. But with that quote, Teepen predicted a journey to great success for the guitarist and singer.
Sparks’s family was from Kentucky but he grew up in Ohio. He is a third generation bluegrass “innovator.” His family story is similar to other artists we’ve studied. There were instruments and records laying around the house, an award-winning grandfather who played the fiddle, and performances for church and the local radio. He could play the classic bluegrass instruments: guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, bass, and fiddle. He stuck with the guitar so he could sing and play, rather than dominate the sound with a lead instrument like the banjo.
Sparks’s took a huge first step into the bluegrass realm. He started playing with the Stanley Brothers when he was only seventeen years old. It was a part-time gig until Carter died. Sparks jumped from alternate guitarist to Carter’s vocal replacement. He sang lead for three years with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Sparks started his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers, in the early seventies. They played bars and festivals with some personal appearances thrown in as well. The band started getting bigger as the audience responded to their personal style and sound. Original songs like “Thank You, Lord” garnered particular attention.
A defining moment in Teepen’s article described Sparks’s reaction to hearing “Kentucky Chimes” on the radio. It’s entirely instrumental, which connects the Ramblers to their old time roots.
Larry Sparks and his Lonesome Ramblers have survived and thrived in fifty years of making music. Sparks has toured in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. His accolades include IBMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year and induction into the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Farm. He continues to tour in the spring of 2015.
Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader, pp. 192-198.
Fred Bartenstein’s Generation Chart