4 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Some singers – Steve Gulley and David Parmley come to mind – could easily jump back and forth between country music and bluegrass. Marty Raybon, who was a star in country music (Shenandoah) could probably sing some blues. I can’t imagine Larry Sparks playing anything but bluegrass, and he’s done it so well for nearly five decades.
The many times I’ve seen him on stage he’s always had good musicians with him, though often young and just starting to make names of their own in the business. I’m not sure who is in his band at the moment because his website appears to be sadly out of date. Playing on this CD are his son, Larry D. on bass, Ron Stewart (who is still with the Boxcars as far as I know) on fiddle, and Lonesome Ramblers Tyler Mullins on banjo and Carl Berggren on mandolin. Adding harmony vocals are Jeff Brown and Don Rigsby.
Included on this CD is an old gospel number. “Somebody Touched Me.” The picking on this and all the songs is excellent. Ron Stewart is one of the best fiddlers in bluegrass today, Larry D., Tyler and Carl are good musicians and Larry’s distinctive guitar style is always a treat. I’m struck by the difference in the harmony – not good different or bad different, just different. I last reviewed the Al Wood reissue and loved the harmony singing. They had a good blend with the singers equally represented in the mix. On the other hand, Larry’s strong voice (and the way this is mixed) dominates the harmony singing so the others sing behind him more than with him. Other singers use this technique but, of the two, I like the blended style of Al Wood better.
“Gunfighter’s Revenge” is the only bluegrass gunfighting ballad I’ve ever heard and the only one Sparks has ever done (at least on a record). The standard for this kind of song was pretty well set by Marty Robbins with songs like El Paso and Billy Walker’s Cross The Brazos At Waco, but Larry’s tale holds up well in comparison. If there’s any doubt about it being bluegrass all you need to do is check the composers. Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm are one of bluegrass’ most prolific and widely recorded songwriting teams. “Back Road” is an instrumental that Sparks wrote on a banjo. This is a good one. If you like “Jerusalem Ridge” then you’ll enjoy this driving number. He reaches to the country side for Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On.” He gives it a bluesy feel which I like as well as Locklin’s version.
“Lines On The Highway” is a fast-moving road song with some good picking – if you’ve never heard Larry Sparks pick the strings off a guitar on a fast-tempo song, he does it here – but I don’t find the lyrics memorable. As a bass player I have to like “Blue Mountain Melody” with its bass kickoff and tag. Bluegrass bass tends to be understated, supporting the rest of the band without calling undue attention to its lines. This is Tom Gray style bass playing on the chorus. I also like Stewart’s bluesy fiddle.
I listened several times to hear the next Larry Sparks’ signature song, like “John Deere Tractor” or “Love of the Mountains.” There are songs that local and regional bands – and jammers – will do that reach back across the years. “Love of the Mountains” is one (too many people can’t figure out the chord structure of “John Deere Tractor”) but I don’t hear that song on this CD except for “Back Road.” “Almost Home” comes close but I don’t think it will stand the test of time except in Larry’s shows.
Good music, but not his most memorable songs.