By Donald Teplyske
For more than fifty years, Larry Sparks has been plying his trade as a bluegrass professional, in the last twenty as a senior member of the fraternity. Many of his seminal recordings from the 1980s and ’90s have gone unappreciated by contemporary listeners, released as they were on long unavailable or impractical vinyl and cassette formats.
Rebel Records’ compilation release Lonesome & Blue: More Favorites
goes a little ways to improve the situation, putting forth eleven of these tracks, as well as two additional numbers from 2000’s Special Delivery and a single track from 1992’s Heart Trouble.
Featuring Sparks’ deceptively gentle and bluesy delivery, the earliest recordings are “Life of Sorrow” (1974) and “Rock Hearts” (1975), bluegrass standards originally appearing on the King label. A testament to Sparks’ approach is the consistency of this material recorded over a twenty-five year time span.
While each song has merit, listeners may be attracted to two numbers featuring the mandolin playing of Ricky Skaggs, “Waltz of the Wind” (1977) and the always implausible “Pretty Little Miss” (1982,) which also features Skaggs’ distinctive tenor.
Mandolinist Wendy Miller prominently appears on five numbers, while Dave Evans’ banjo playing is featured on the Stanley Brothers tracks that open the album including “Think of What You’ve Done” (1982).
Musicians appearing on multiple tracks include Josh McMurry, John Heffernan, Art Wynder, Gene Elders, and Mike Lilly, as well as—on a single track each—fiddlers Art Stamper (Johnnie and Jack’s “Heart Trouble,” 1992), Chubby Wise (Hank Williams’ “Waltz of the Wind”), and Stuart Duncan (“The Old Spinning Wheel,” 1985.)
As pure as the dew on the rose—as he sings on “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine,” 2000—Larry Sparks’ brand of bluegrass is timeless. Whether out on the “Timberline” (2000), when “Lonesome and Blue” (1983), or when begging “Come Back Darling” (1983), Rebel Records and Larry Sparks deliver the expected depth and quality on this brief snapshot into their past.
Lonesome and Blue: More Favorites doesn’t replace worn albums and cassettes and isn’t as comprehensive as illicit digital rips, but certainly improves the listening experience. How about now re-releasing complete albums from the Sparks catalog?