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Larry Sparks

Lonesome and Then Some – 2014 (Rebel)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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CDs by Larry Sparks

Through 50 years, Larry Sparks has honed a full-bodied, soulful approach to singing bluegrass. He has a wonderful right hand, maintaining unbreakable rhythm while contributing leads that lend a bluesy country resonance to his songs.

Sparks and his band form the consistent instrumental core with The Lonesome Ramblers appearing throughout. Tyler Mullins handles the banjo duties and Larry D. Sparks takes care of bass. Jackie Kincaid's tenor is recognizable on most songs. Long-time compatriot David Harvey is the featured mandolin player with Ron Stewart fiddling.

The feature track, "Bitterweeds," is impressive. Stewart lays the foundation for this expansive narrative, one that should become a Sparks standard. Modulating his vocal approach to utilize precise lyrical imagery, Sparks creates a compelling and mournful character study.

Select pioneers of bluegrass appear throughout. On two songs, Curly Seckler sings tenor to Sparks' lead. "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" has the added bonus of Bobby Osborne on mandolin, while "We're Going To Sing, Sing, Sing" features Jesse McReynolds on mando. Seckler's voice adds depth to the choruses.

Osborne appears on a second song, also singing this time on "Letter to My Darling." This classic sound - Sparks singing lead and baritone on the chorus, Osborne with a clear tenor, a tight five-instrument arrangement featuring a real nice break from the mandolin master - makes this track an immediate favorite.

Ralph Stanley lend his distinctive, continually dynamic voice to "Loving You Too Well," a Carter Stanley song. The dramatic pairing of two vocal giants doesn't overshadow the crisp precision of the instrumentalists. Kincaid's mandolin break is brief, but notable, and Stewart steps up for a brief cameo, as does Mullins. The performance of this arrangement is truly excellent in its execution.

Another in a line of terrific Larry Sparks albums, "Lonesome and Then Some" concludes with an archival recording. Joining the Blue Grass Boys at Bean Blossom, Sparks duets with Bill Monroe on "In the Pines." The energetic spontaneity and obvious fan appeal of this performance is apparent.

Larry Sparks has earned his status as a bluegrass legend. This new recording may mark Sparks' golden anniversary since joining the Clinch Mountain Boys, but it is unequivocal evidence that he isn't going to soon relinquish his rightful place as a denizen of bluegrass' artistic leadership.