Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews: Larry Sparks LONESOME and THEN SOME - A CLASSIC 50th CELEBRATION

Image635434683093582102An old friend of mine had recommended that I get Larry Sparks’ “40” CD seven or eight years ago…… she had worked on the recording and engineering of “40” and her enthusiasm for it, I found out in time, was more that justified. She’s good about steering me towards the “good” stuff, and I think she knew it would teach me plenty, if I would just take the time and really listen.

I did listen, and I learned so much about the depth, strength, history and pure power of bluegrass music from that CD, a recording I still listen to regularly. When Larry’s newest, “Lonesome and Then Some….. A Classic 50th Celebration” arrived, it jumped right to the top of the pile! It’s been here two days and I’m already writing this review. What does THAT tell you? At this rate it’ll be worn out by Labor Day!

Larry’s voice is the star of this recording, as it should be, and he is in fine form. So much vocal expertise and finesse! He sings with such ease, yet the passion is always present. One song in particular is the highpoint, and also the focal point, of the CD. “Savior’s Precious Blood,” by Betty Jean Robinson, is just Larry’s voice and his guitar, but, that’s all that’s needed to make this song so special. It shows the intensity, and the magnitude, of Larry’s vocal and instrumental prowess under a fine microscope.

Which brings me to the second star of this CD…… that old Martin guitar with the oversized, black pick guard that Larry has been playing for just about forever, has been faithfully captured in the studio by Co-Producer Steve Chandler. It’s sound, tone and texture, plus Larry’s picking style, all go together to make a signature mark on this recording. I’ve never heard an old Martin guitar that sounds like Larry’s, very strong on the bottom end and “boomy” like a cannon, but I like it a LOT! Mr. Chandler should be applauded for recognizing and showcasing that individual voice and guitar sound that immediately tells the listener “here comes Larry Sparks!”

The first song you’ll hear as you start to listen is “Will You Be Satisfied That Way,” by Jimmie Skinner, and it’s a traditional toe tapper that signals this is going to be bluegrass at it’s best. The very vivid coal mining story song, “Journey To The Light,” by Sandy Shortridge follows in the #2 slot and the minor key mountain mystery tune “Bitterweeds,” by Barbara Wilkinson and Sonya Wood is next in line. I lumped these three songs together, because they all feature Larry’s core band, Tyler Mullins on banjo, Jackie Kincaid on tenor vocals (also mandolin on the road and two songs here) and Larry D. Sparks on bass, plus the added talents of David Harvey on mandolin and the artistry of Ron Stewart on some really sweet fiddle! Jackie’s tenor is a perfect fit with Larry’s lead vocal, and then Larry came back and overdubbed the baritone tracks. The vocals are outstanding, and the hours in the studio working these parts out is apparent by the fine result. Three super good songs in a row kicking off this CD, with Larry’s power house band pushing them along was a stroke of genius….. all together, they had my full attention right off the bat, and I had to go back and listen to the first three tunes several times before I could continue on my merry listening way!

Larry has invited six special guests to the party to help him, and the result really does make this CD a “Celebration.” Helping Larry sing the Van Hoos penned song “Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures” are Judy Marshall and Alison Krauss. Stunningly beautiful is the only way I know to describe the vocals. Each one takes a turn singing the lead vocal and the harmony’s soar to new, and different heights, with each verse rotation. Larry’s son, Larry D. Sparks, plays bass on the entire project, and though he is not named in the liner notes as playing on this selection, there is definitely some fine bass playing accompanying Larry’s guitar work, and I’m assuming it’s Larry D. Give it a good, close listen…. this is a great track!

Dr. Ralph Stanley makes his presence known on “Loving You Too Well,” written by none other that Carter Stanley! This ¾ time waltz is a rhythmic delight and Ralph and Larry sing it like they were brothers. Right on the money vocally, with great banjo, mandolin and fiddle solos and fills. I’ll bet Carter would love this version as much as I do!

With Ron Stewart kicking it off gracefully, “Letter From My Darling,” by Bill Monroe, features Bobby Osborne on tenor vocal and taking a solo, showing off some of his most famous old time mandolin chops in the process. One of Larry’s best assets is his ability to take any song and mold it to fit his interpretation of it, and he does that here. It also amazes me how well he can harmonize with any one! This song is another winner!

There’s just something about the syncopation of a ¾ time waltz that I love. “In Those Days,” by Connie Leigh, is a fast waltz with Larry singing lyrics that have him reminiscing of old friends, days gone by, family and simpler times. This might be the hidden jewel on the CD, and on it, it’s Larry’s band, with Jackie Kincaid on mandolin and tenor vocals, that make it shine. The interplay between the banjo, mandolin and fiddle make for some very interesting back and forth pickin’ trickery. Very nice!

Larry’s faith has always been a big part of his life, and when he sings a gospel song, he puts his all into it! Luckily for us, there are two good ones on this CD. “We Prayed,” is a very well written song with a great chorus to sing along to. I didn’t know much about the song writer, except to say that she also wrote “Journey To The Light” for this CD, but it came to my attention that she wrote the song after a storm in the Abingdon/Glade Springs area of Virginia. The song is so true to life and Larry does it so well, it almost sounds like Sandy Shortridge may have written “We Prayed” with Larry in mind to sing it. He owns this version of a wonderful song! I plan to check out more of Sandy’s compositions, both of her songs recorded here are dynamite lyrically and melodically!

“I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing,” by the immortal Hank Williams, is probably one of the finest gospel songs ever written, in my humble opinion, and to make this version even more special, Larry brought in Curly Seckler to sing tenor and Jesse McReynolds to sing baritone and play mandolin. It also features Tim Graves on dobro. Bluegrass gospel just doesn’t get any better than when Larry Sparks is singing it…….

After listening to this entire CD several times, one thing became very clear to me….. there is a very real “vibe,” or “identity,“ that seems to prevail. Almost all the songs fit together as a first class, cohesive, tight and traditional bluegrass and gospel music lesson. The only song that seems out of place is the old honky tonk dance number by Max Fidler and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.” Even having Bobby Osborne and Curly Seckler on it doesn’t help to make it fit with the other selections. Maybe it’s just that I can’t see Larry Sparks in a bar room! Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good arrangement of a good old country standard, played, sung and recorded just as well as all the rest of the songs presented here. Now listen up, because I never thought these words would come from me, country music fan that I am, but…. I think the song is just too country, and too out of character, for this CD.

I think the last song on Larry’s “Celebration” is a true work of art! Recorded on 9/9/95 at Bean Blossom, IN, this live version of the old traditional song “In The Pines,” pairing Larry and Bill Monroe, is a bluegrass treasure. Captured by Vic Gabany, who also helped in the additional recording involved in the release of this song, it lets us hear the voice of Big Mon once again, just a year before he passed away. What a gift this is to bluegrass fans, and what an end to an extra special Larry Sparks CD. I wonder if this song will be in contention come awards season???

Once again I find I’m listening, and learning, from Larry Sparks…… I have an idea this CD will also be rolling out of my old truck speakers for years to come, just like “40” does. Yep…. go get your copy of Larry’s “50th” right away!

1 comment:

  1. Love the song "Bitterweeds"! Had to keep listening over and over!!


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