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Larry Sparks

Let Him Lead You – 2011 (Rebel)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Larry Sparks

Following the death of his brother Carter in 1966, the first lead singer Ralph Stanley hired as a replacement was an Ohio-born teenager named Larry Sparks. Several years later, Sparks formed his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers, and set out on a solo career that continues in full force today more than 40 years later. While known for a voice that highlights the "blue" in bluegrass - the songs of love lost, love never found and hard times that never seem to end - Sparks also recorded a treasure trove of gospel material during his long association with the Virginia-based Rebel label, and this edition of their Vault Masters series draws 14 vintage tracks from it.

Among them are renditions of classic gospel favorites, such as Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures and When I Lay My Burdens Down, but what makes this such an interesting collection are the tunes that paint a picture outside the literal meaning of gospel as "good news": Snow Covered Mound, a longtime Sparks favorite, is a mournful lament sung over a mother's grave; I Am the Man, Thomas is a cry from the cross that Sparks learned in his Stanley days; and Battle of Armegeddon is a Hank Williams song drawn from Revelation that surfaced as a demo tape in the years following his death, and Sparks is one of the few who can do it justice.

The arrangements also encompass the wide variety of instrumental styles found in the gospel genre, from full-bore bluegrass to delicate guitar and mandolin accompaniment to a cappella. Longtime Sparks fans probably already have all these tracks, but eight appear on CD for the first time, and having them collected and presented together adds impact.