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Life begins at "40" for Larry Sparks

By John Lupton, May 2005

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Among the most striking aspects of "40" is the presence of so many powerfully talented women. In addition to Krauss, Vincent ("1-800-DO-U-CARE") and Howard, the disc also features Sharon and Cheryl White, Sonya and Becky Isaacs and Judy Marshall.

Sparks simply appreciates the opportunity to sing with high-caliber talents regardless of gender, but understands that bluegrass - even more so than mainstream country - has historically been a man's world. Though a few female country stars like Rose Maddox dabbled in bluegrass to some degree, there weren't many female headliners.

"Back then...Wilma Lee Cooper was one of my very favorite singers of that time period, but there wasn't very many that sang the 'real thing,' you know? But today, you have Rhonda, Alison, the Whites, the Isaacs, and these are all just really good, top-notch singers, I think. You won't find many better, and I was just proud to have them with me. I respect their talent an awful lot. They have a lot of the older feel. Alison's got her own style, but Rhonda, she's got a lot of the older feel to her singing, with her own style, too."

Among the Sparks classics on "40" is a new version of what is perhaps his "signature" tune, the title track (written by Lawrence Hammond) of his landmark Rebel issue "John Deere Tractor" (recorded in 1978, but not released until 1980).

After so many years of doing the song night after night, in the hands of an artist of Sparks' talents, it might tend to evolve and take on a new sound and feel, and in fact, the new version (featuring Krauss and Dan Tyminski) is at a noticeably quicker tempo. Sparks is quick to say, though, that he really hasn't changed his approach to the song. It's just a matter of what sounded - and felt - right in the studio.

"It just fell into place at that tempo, you know, it just fell right into that groove, and it felt pretty good when we was recording it at that speed, so we just let it ride. I know it was a little more uptempo than the first version of it. But, I think it's good. Maybe it should have been more closer to the first, but my own sense is that, a new recording and new people, different singers with me there, it might be good that it was done just a little bit different tempo than the original recording because the original one, it's not going to be done just like that anyway."

In the long run, Sparks says, if you're working with good material, it will stand up to the various interpretations that serious artists will make of it.

"A good song, to me, is a good song. I like all kinds of music. I listen to all kind of different styles of music, and a good song is just a good song with me, and you can take it and do a lot with it, and you can change things around, the old standard. Yeah, there's a lot of different things you can do with it. If it's an old song, we don't have to do it like (someone else) did it. We can change it, keep it basically the same song, but you can change it...do it your way."

When reminded that his old boss Ralph Stanley has cut back some, but is still active in his late seventies, Sparks sees himself traveling a similar road.

"I would say, I will cut back. I don't think I would ever retire. As long as the Lord lets me go and my health lets me go, I don't see retiring. But, that road gets pretty long out there, a lot of living out of a suitcase, but like I say, it's just another way to make a living, and it's a good way for me. I think the music needs me, and I need the music - we're friends, you see - and as far as retiring, I don't think I would even think of it. There's a lot of time into it, a lot of years, and it takes a lot of years in this business, in bluegrass, to be successful, to make it."

"I feel that I've built up a good, solid foundation in the music, with my own style of singing and playing, and from the way it's treated me, I've built up a good following in every state, and I can tour just about anywhere I want to tour, and people know the name Larry Sparks. There's a world full of people out there, a world full of people that don't know a thing about this music. They don't know who's who. They don't know anything about it, and them people, we need to reach too, you know. We need to reach these new people. But, at the same time, we need to give it to them real, give them the real thing while we're reaching them with a different approach, with a little twist to it that they'll accept, you know. There's just a world full of people that needs to hear this music."

His 40 years worth of fans, though, Sparks holds dearest of all. "I just want to thank them, and I'm going to keep continuing on as long as we get the people supporting the music while we're still out there with it, keep rolling with it, and start on another 40."

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