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Larry Sparks gives a "Special Delivery"

By John Lupton, November 2000

The appearance of a new album from traditional bluegrass stalwart Larry Sparks is always likely to be viewed as a "Special Delivery" by those who have followed his career over more than three decades, so it's more than appropriate that his latest is titled exactly that.

"It's been too long since I had a bluegrass album," says Sparks. His last release was the 1996 "Blue Mountain Memories," also on Rebel.

Sparks still sports chiseled features and wavy, jet-black hair (the sideburns now distinguished with a touch of silver) that, almost as much as his haunting, blues-tinged voice and guitar licks, has made him one of the most striking and compelling figures on the bluegrass stage since debuting in in 1964 at 16 with the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys through one of their Ohio visits.

Sparks got into music as a boy, listening an all-night country music radio program on on Cincinnati's WCKY and started picking on the local bluegrass scene.

Sparks was with the band on an intermittent basis up to the time that Carter Stanley passed away in December, 1966.

When Ralph Stanley decided to continue on as a solo bandleader, he turned to Sparks and rehired him as the guitarist and lead singer.

The association lasted until 1969 when Sparks formed his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers, and made bluegrass music his full-time profession.

One of the most striking cuts on "Special Delivery" is a return to the years with Ralph Stanley, a remake of "Snow Covered Mound."

"We (he and Ralph) recorded that in '68, I think," relates Sparks, now 53.

The song, a classic tribute in the bluegrass style to a dear, departed mother had been on his mind since his own mother's passing earlier this year, and he felt the song needed to be revisited.

"It had been just too long...you're looking at 32 years. I don't think anybody's done it since then, and I thought it was just a real good song to bring out and record again. It would be a new song to a lot of people."

Perhaps new to some, but Sparks shows that he still can capture the Stanley Sound, it's hard to believe in listening to it that Stanley wasn't sitting in on the session.

On "Special Delivery," Sparks also indulges again his passion for songs that spin a good yarn, and he makes no excuses for it - he loves to tell a story.

"I kind of like to go that route a lot, it keeps you away from too many love songs...which are okay, but I think the music's been really saturated with them over the years, and I think it's good and fresh to bring in the things that are not so much the love songs."

The album's opening cut is "Colleen Malone," a tune made familiar to many bluegrass fans by the (now defunct) Colorado band Hot Rize on their final album a decade ago.

"I hadn't heard their version, and I didn't know they'd recorded it," says the Ohio native, who now lives in Indiana.

Instead, he got it directly from the source - longtime friend Pete Goble, whose frequent collaborations with his partner Leroy Drumm have made them something akin to the Rodgers and Hammerstein of bluegrass. Their songs have been recorded dozens of times by probably an equal number of bands, and Sparks has drawn on their work for favorites in the past - "Blue Virginia Blues" and "Tennessee 1949," to name just a couple.

"That song ("Colleen Malone") has such a good story, and it needs to be told. It needs to be sung. It needs to be recorded. I think that type of story needs to be treated right. It needs the right feel for it, and I think I did what I went for. They (Goble and Drumm) have a lot more of the story songs, they tell a good story. I think by doing those kinds of songs, it keeps the music up to date, but you still keep the grip on what's traditional."

Another of Sparks' favorite "story" songwriters is Gary Ferguson, himself an accomplished bluegrass singer, guitarist and bandleader. "Special Delivery" features two Ferguson tunes, the introspective "Timberline," and the moving, poignant "The Undelivered Message."

The latter is yet another musical story, this time of a young man who leaves his native Gettysburg to join the ranks of the Grey, only to die on Culp's Hill where he played as a boy. It's material that's tailor-made for Sparks' low-key, yet intensely emotional style of singing, and he's grateful that such material is still being written.

"I feel very fortunate to get hold of some of Gary's songs, and some of Pete's and Leroy's too...even their love songs are fresh, they're good, strong numbers."

The song for which Sparks is perhaps best known is "John Deere Tractor," the title song of his 1976 Rebel album (also covered later by The Judds). It's yet another story song that delves into other favorite themes - solitude, loneliness and the lament for the past. It's a song that is echoed on the new album by "Ghost Stories" (which also uses the image of a forlorn tractor), and Sparks agrees that the songs are similar. "They (are) a lot, this (song) might do it more than others, yeah."

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