The two futures of bluegrass arrived in my mailbox in the fall of 1972. I was an 18-year-old college sophomore with a bluegrass radio show on Ohio State’s campus station when a promo package from Starday Records in Nashville arrived with two LPs. The first marked a real change in the bluegrass world by a bunch of hippie kids with the name New Grass Revival. Featuring fiddle-mandolin prodigy Sam Bush, just out of his teens, it opened with “Great Balls of Fire” and never let up, a radical departure from traditional bluegrass that set the template for every jamgrass band to follow.
The other was less immediately eye-catching. It was also by a young guy, leading a young band, except for a white-haired bass player.
That was Ramblin’ Bluegrass, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers’ national bluegrass debut and, looking back, it was just as forward thinking and influential as that NGR album.
Where NGR gleefully broke the rules, Sparks bent them. The singer-guitarist came up in the rough-and-tumble bluegrass bars of Southwest Ohio, where he would sing displaced Kentuckians back home after a day on the assembly lines of Frigidaire, NCR and Fisher Body. Those honky tonks turned out some of the greatest names in bluegrass – Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers, Frank Wakefield, Roy Lee Centers. And Larry Sparks. Sparks got his big break with Ralph Stanley, replacing his late brother Carter. He’s still got that Carter Stanley-style lonesomeness in his voice. But he also developed a hard-edged, bluesy lead guitar style and became a master at classic country music (check out his album of Hank Williams songs on County). And whatever he does, he does it with absolute authority and real soul.
He also has a finely-tuned ear for great songs. No other bluegrasser of his generation has so many signature songs – “John Deere Tractor,” “It’s Too Late to Walk the Floor,’” “A Face in the Crowd,” “I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages,” “Tennessee 1949” – it’s a long list.
And his sound, combining a deep sense of tradition with a modern viewpoint has served him – and the hundreds of neo-traditional bluegrass bands that came after him – very well.
Dozens of albums later, his 2011 release, Almost Home, his Rounder debut, mixes fine new songs (“Blue Mountain Melody”) with classic country (Hank Locklin’s “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”) and hard-driving gospel (“Somebody Touched Me”).
Back when Sparks released that first Starday album, the rest of bluegrass seemed to be heading full tilt into a wimpier version of what NGR was doing, doing rock and pop songs with a bluegrass touch, trading the timeless drive of Scruggs-style banjo for the fad of frilly chromatic licks. And unlike NGR’s hard-edged, funky bluegrass jams, other young bands aimed for a commercial, soft-rock, country-pop sound.
Instead, Sparks stood his ground, emulating his idols, singing with passion and power and keeping the sound and feel of first-generation bluegrass alive in the ‘70s.
Through the years, that never changed. That flame still burns today. Nov. 19, Larry Sparks brings his lonesome sound down to the Volcano Room.
Opening that day in the cave will be one of the grandchildren of NGR. Mikdrive is a hot new band out of Austin that features mandolin and fiddle champ Dennis Ludiker with equally accomplished multi-instrumentalists Noah Jeffries and Brian Beken and bassist Matt Mefford (who played with Beken and Ludiker in the South Austin Jug Band). Milkdrive has been causing a ruckus with exciting live shows (including Music City Roots) and their 2011, made-in-Nashville studio debut, Road From Home.
Don’t miss this one, folks. The future of bluegrass may depend on it.
- Larry Nager