Our first attempt to interview Larry Sparks was thwarted by poor phone reception. He was playing a bluegrass festival so far off the beaten path and, more to the point, so far from his carrier’s cellular towers, there was no hope of us having a conversation.
The veteran bluegrass singer and bandleader is only slightly less out of the way at his home in Greensburg, Indiana, (pop. 11,492) when we finally connect. He’s been perfectly comfortable remaining there throughout his career and doesn’t seem to have given a moment’s thought to moving where the industry action is.
Consistency is everything to Sparks. He calls himself a “stay-with-what-works-type person.” He’s long been a standard-setting stylist in traditional bluegrass, his sidemen coming and going, but his sound — rawboned yet emotionally resonant, rugged yet refined — has stayed essentially unchanged.
With a new album Lonesome & Then Some marking his 50th anniversary as a performer, Sparks reminisced about pivotal moments in his career in as few words as possible.
CMT Edge: When you were in your teens, you stepped into a musical role that had been filled by much-beloved singer and songwriter Carter Stanley. How did that affect you?
Sparks: Those were pretty big shoes to fill. He wore size 10. I was a 9½. It was a natural thing for me to do bluegrass music, and it came easier because it was natural, you know. … I just got in there and started doing it. And I made mistakes along the way. But I fixed ‘em as I went.
Bluegrass was fairly new at that point. The first generation of musicians was still leading the way. And you were a little younger than them. When did you make preserving the tradition a priority?
I think I always did have that. But when I was in my 20s, I felt I maybe would have a part in keeping the music alive. As I got older, I thought more about it: “This is what I need to do.” That is me. I can do other stuff, too, but that’s where my heart is.
Rock ‘n’ roll was blowing up when you were in high school, and you played some on electric guitar. Did you look at that as just a youthful phase?
I think so, yeah. It was just a learning experience. Testing the waters, I guess you might say, to see what might happen there. But it came right back to what I was raised around — music that was more traditional. I like other music, too. If anybody can do well in it, that’s good for them. They might make dollars and I’ll make pennies, but I’ll have a good time.
Did you hang onto your electric? Do you still have one?
No. I don’t have one. I never did go that route. I kept my music just real simple, just playin’ and singin’ — just an old guitar, you know.
You have hung on to your Martin D-28 acoustic.
Yeah, I’ve been playing it 47, 48 years. Almost my whole career.
Besides just liking the sound of it, does it represent reliability and consistency to you?
Yeah, I think so. Your instrument becomes a big part of you. It has me. We look alike, my guitar and me. The sound of my guitar, the tone of it, is honed in with my voice.
I once heard someone compare your singing to George Jones. Not that you sound much alike, just the idea that you share that bluesy, note-bending thing, wringing all that feeling, all those syllables out of a single word. Did you feel a kinship with that aspect of his singing? And what did it take for you to be satisfied with your own singing?
I don’t know if I’m satisfied with it. I’ll say I can always improve. I can improve without change. The feel is something that is there with me, and it’s hard to explain that. The feel comes from your inner soul and heart and mind that you put into a song. … You have to really get in the song — get right in there and get a hold of that song.
Again, it’s natural for me to sing the way I sing. I never have really worked at it that much. It just fell in place. It seemed like each year something would happen and it would fall into place more and more. Now, George Jones was that type of singer. … I never followed his career close or anything, but I could relate to [his music].
You’ve threatened to make a country album for a long time. What recording of yours would you say comes closest to bridging the gap between traditional country and bluegrass?
That’s a fine line right there. I always felt I could do it, but what I do now has always worked for me. And when something works in music, you kinda just leave it alone. … I think it would be something the people would like, even the bluegrass people. And you do it as a project — not do it as a change [of genre]. The way I would do it would be so simple, so pure, so true, I believe they would take it.
There have been instances when you’ve made a song your own, then the song crossed over into country. “John Deere Tractor” would be a good example. How did the Judds get a hold of it?
We were doing the Station Inn, must have been the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. They came in that night, the Judds did, and liked that song, “John Deere Tractor.” They spoke to me about it and talked about how they’d like to record it. I said, “Well, that would be great. I hope you do.” That’s where it started at right there, where they talked to me about it.
You’ve got a live recording on this anniversary album of you and Bill Monroe singing “In the Pines” in the ‘90s. Where was that recorded?
Actually, we did that at Bean Blossom, Bill’s old [bluegrass] park there. In fact, I think that was the last year that he was there. It was in September of 1995.
Why haven’t you put it out before now?
Well, the guy that did the sound, Vic Gabany — he used to run sound at the Opry and Bean Blossom and different things — he recorded that and kept it all them years. Then he pitched it to me, the idea of doing it on the album. We went to one of the studios in Nashville and worked with it and cleaned it up a little bit. It’s really a big sound for a live recording.
Your son, Dee, has sung and played bass with you, so it’s clear that there’s a musical connection across generations in your family. But I wondered about your grandchildren. Are they into your music?
I really don’t know. It’s hard to answer that one. They like what I do, my music. But you never know. In today’s world, there are so many things that take over that age group. I couldn’t say what they really think about grandpa here.