October 26 - 31, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. With the recent release of the his CD Special Delivery we felt like it would be a great week to highlight Larry Sparks.
Blue and Lonesome Guitar Stylist
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 2, Number 4 (March/April 1998)
by Dan Miller
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For those of us who love to hear the blues in our bluegrass guitar, the records and CDs we love to spin frequently bear the name "Larry Sparks." With his heavy, aggressive, dynamic, downstroking attack on that deep, dark, bassy Martin D-28, Larry knows how to make the blues bluer and the lonesome lonelier. He has a unique voice on the guitar and is a true pioneer of the flatpick style of lead guitar in bluegrass. Although he is probably best known as a singer and bandleader, many of today's flatpickers have been influenced by his dynamic, bluesy guitar playing.
Chris Jones, of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, is one of today's top artists who has been heavily influenced by Larry's playing. When asked about this influence, Chris said, "Larry Sparks was the first 'big name' bluegrass musician I ever saw performing live and it had a big impact on me. I was blown away not only by the soulfulness of his singing, but by his guitar playing. It had so much punch and feeling to it--not only a bluesier version of Stanley style guitar playing, but a style completely his own."
In a discussion about Larry Sparks, Hot Rize guitarist Charles Sawtelle said, "Larry Sparks is one of my favorite guitar players. He is really unique. I like that he plays a lot of blues licks and syncopated stuff. I really like his guitar style and I like his singing too. He is a great singer. He is one guy who's talent on the guitar seems to be really overlooked. But everyone I know who is really into the heart and soul of bluegrass, people like Peter Rowan and Laurie Lewis, really like him a lot too."
Our distinguished columnist Steve Pottier says, "I first became aware of Larry Sparks through my friend Rick Mann. Rick would always pour his heart and soul into everything he sang. I'd ask him "Where'd you learn 'These Old Blues?'" He'd answer "Larry Sparks." I asked about "Brand New Broken Heart?" He said, "Larry Sparks." How about, "Lonesome Old Feeling?" Same answer, "Larry Sparks." Rick's singing and playing was so intense, and he seemed to have gotten a lot of his inspiration from this fellow Larry Sparks, so I had to check him out. I only had to hear 'A Face in the Crowd' to make me a believer."
Steve continues, "I helped get Larry a gig in San Francisco in the early 80's. That was the first time I saw him live, and I was blown away by his range of dynamics, his soulful singing, and his command of the guitar. "Carter's Blues" (which Steve transcribed in FGM Volume 1, Number 3) became one of my favorite tunes to pick after watching him play it. The muffled "Merle Travis" style notes he would put in, the long held bends, the fierce attack--it all added up to soulful guitar. Later I would model his attitude and tell my students to do the same. It helps you get that bluegrass authority in your playing! When Sparks plays, you know he means it, you feel that intention."
Larry Sparks, born in September 1947 in Lebanon, Ohio, was the youngest of nine children born to Eva and Charlie Sparks. His grandfather, Lewison Dose Russell, was an old-time contest fiddler from Jackson County, Kentucky. Although his parents and older siblings never really pursued music outside of the home, Larry says that there was always music and singing around the house. All of the Sparks children had learned to play at least a little guitar.
When he was just five years old Larry's fifteen year old sister Bernice showed him a few chords on an S-hole Harmony guitar. Larry wanted to learn how to play and sing the country music that he heard on the radio -- Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Reno and Smiley. His sister also taught him how to sing harmony and they sang as a duo in churches and on local radio.
Larry began to explore lead guitar playing when he was about 10 years old. There weren't many examples of lead guitar work in the style of music Larry was playing in those days and he thinks that that was a good thing because it forced him to come up with his own style. He states that he was influenced by some of the early rock and roll (50's rockabilly) and blues players, like Blind Boy Fuller, that he heard on the radio. In bluegrass, the only lead guitar players Larry remembers hearing were Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Bill Napier. Larry states that he did not try to copy any of the licks he heard on the radio and has never consciously tried to play like anyone else.
Larry never owned a record player or records, so all of his musical influence, other than what he heard his family sing, came from the radio. While he never sat down in front of the radio with his guitar and tried to learn licks, Larry said a lot of what he heard was "stored away" and would come out later in his playing. His bluesy style was no doubt "stored away" while listening to bluesmen on the radio when he was a young boy. In an article printed in Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine (April 1988), Larry states, "I don't recall who they were but I remember listening to a lot of flattop guitar blues playing on the radio; blues music with guitar and harmonica. A lot of my licks are what I remember hearing, some of them are original things. I think some of it goes back to what I heard on the radio; the old blues."
Larry was drawn to bluegrass music because he liked the acoustic sound and the way bluegrass "played a lot like the old acoustic blues." He says that the truth, honesty, and purity of the music drew him to it more than anything. Last summer at the Wolf Mountain bluegrass festival in Grass Valley, California, I overhead a fan telling Larry how much he enjoyed traditional bluegrass music. Larry's comment was, "It is the only music that still makes sense."
When asked how he approached lead breaks to the songs he was first learning to play, Larry said that he tried to stick with the melody and work around it. He says, "I like to play where people can understand it and know what it is." This is a philosophy he has retained throughout his career. Former Lonesome Rambler David Harvey states, "Larry can play bluesy and he can play soulful and anything else that he wants to play. But something he always stressed is to play to the people--not above their heads."1
By the time Larry was thirteen he had already begun playing with several local bluegrass bands. He then made the jump to the big time when he was hired to play with the Stanley Brothers at the age of sixteen. When asked how he got that job, Larry said that a friend of his, Paul "Moon" Mullins of WPFB radio, knew Carter and had occasionally been filling in with the Stanleys on fiddle. The Stanleys were touring in Ohio, playing shows in the Cincinnati-Dayton area, and they needed someone to fill the guitar spot. Mullins recommended Larry. Larry says that he did not have an audition for the job, he just went right to the show and filled-in. They rehearsed a few songs back stage, but that was about all of the preparation he had for the show. Looking back, Larry says, "I think I kicked a lot of those songs off too fast for the Stanleys."
When asked about Larry's guitar playing, George Shuffler said, "Larry is a fine guitar player. He plays a lot on his bass strings and he plays a lot of blues. He is creative and I like what he does. I didn't get much chance to travel with him, so I've seen him more times since he has been on his own than I did when he was with Ralph. He is a fine boy and I like him a lot."
Although Larry did play with Ralph after Carter passed on, he did not get the job right away. One night when Ralph and his new band were playing in Dayton, Ohio, Larry went to see the show. Roy Lee Center's band was warming up for Ralph and Roy's bass player, Jack Lynch, asked Larry to come up and sing a few numbers. Prior to that time Ralph had only heard Larry sing harmony parts during the shows he had performed with the Stanleys. When Ralph heard Larry sing lead that night, he asked Larry to join his band as the lead singer. Larry says, " It took a little while to do it, but I thought that we eventually got a real good feel to our singing when I was with Ralph."
Larry stayed on with Ralph for three years, February 1967 through 1969. During those years he helped Ralph record his first five solo albums and he also recorded with Ralph's fiddler, Curly Ray Cline. Larry said that when he played with the Stanleys, and then later with Ralph, he played a style of guitar that he felt fit the Stanley's music. Ralph never asked him to play or sing a certain way, nor did he try to copy what George Shuffler or Bill Napier had done before him. He played it his own way, but in the Stanley style. By 1969, at the age of 22, Larry was ready to go out on his own and create the Larry Sparks sound. It was then that he formed his own band, The Lonesome Ramblers.
The Lonesome Ramblers
The original Lonesome Ramblers consisted of Larry's sister Bernice on rhythm guitar, Joe Isaacs on banjo, David Cox on mandolin, and Lloyd Hensley on bass. Coming fresh out of the Stanley Brothers school of music, it was natural that the first incarnation of the Lonesome Ramblers had a Stanley flavor to it. However, Larry was determined to move on to create his own sound.
When he started his band, Larry wanted to develop his own style of singing and guitar playing; something that would be distinctive. It didn't happen overnight, but by the mid-seventies Larry's soulful singing and bluesy guitar playing became recognizable as his own and the band began to play more of their own material. Larry says, "With all due respect to the Stanleys, I knew when I got out on my own I was going to have to get away from that and come up with something different. I came up with new songs and that helped to do that."
The band that helped shape the Lonesome Ramblers sound in the early days included Mike Lilly on banjo and Wendy Miller on mandolin. Larry says, "I wanted a banjo player that was different and creative and Mike added a lot of what I was looking for to the early sound. Mike and Wendy helped my sound reach to where it was more recognizably my own. The Stanleys, Monroe, and Flatt and Scruggs will always be imbedded in my music, and it is never going to leave, but I felt like I had to over-ride that with my own style and do my own music."
Although he never recorded with the Stanley Brothers, Larry had actually started his recording career at a very young age when he and his sister recorded duets on a home recording machine. He also recorded a single with the Slade Mountain Boys in about 1962 and later recorded a single under his own name in 1965 on the Jalyn label. By the time he was twenty-nine, Larry had recorded fourteen albums.
Today, not including the five Ralph Stanley albums he played on and the one he did with Curly Ray Cline, Larry has recorded about 70 albums. The first album recorded with Lilly and Miller as members of the Lonesome Ramblers was an Old Homestead Records release called Bluegrass Old and New. Other highlights include the 1980 Rebel release John Deere Tractor and one of Larry's favorites, Blue Sparks (Rebel 1618).
For guitar players, Larry's instrumental album Lonesome Guitar (Reb-1633), released in 1985 (with Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Josh Graves on dobro, John Masters on banjo, and Larry's son, Larry D. Sparks on bass), is a must have item. If you do not already have a collection of Sparks records or CDs, another good one to start with is Classic Bluegrass (Rebel CD-1107), a collection of some of Larry's most well known songs. Larry's newest Rebel release, Blue Mountain Memories (REB-CD-1726) contains an instrumental cut of the song "Danny Boy" which clearly demonstrates that great Sparks guitar style. We have provided a transcription of this song on page 9.
The Sparks Guitar Style
Larry's heavy downstroking bluesy style is defined by feeling rather than hot licks, dazzling endless runs, or fancy guitar tricks. He can play fast, but instead of a stream of endless notes, he will play in shorts bursts interspersed with accents, bends, and rests. Larry says, "You can note it up to much. It needs to be simple."
Regarding his lead guitar style, Larry says, "I have no idea what I am doing, I just play. I just go for it." He plays a different break every time he picks a song because he plays strictly by feel and he says, "There is always a different feel." Playing close to the melody, keeping it simple, and playing with feeling are all important to Larry.
The techniques that Larry employs, like the use of heavy downstrokes, are strictly motivated by feeling. Larry says, "I play strictly from feel and off the top. Nothing is ever planned. In a tune like 'Carter's Blues,' I couldn't play it any other way because that is the way I feel it. When I play that particular song, that is me. Scale note playing is OK, but it does not suit the way I feel. I prefer playing and singing from my heart."
Gary Brewer, of Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers, has been a big Larry Sparks fan all his life and says that he felt greatly privileged when Larry agreed to play a few cuts with him on his highly acclaimed instrumental release Gary Brewer Guitar. When asked about Larry's lead guitar work, Gary says, "Larry is the most soulful singer in bluegrass music and his guitar playing has that same feeling. He plays with such a distinct feeling that you can really feel what he is playing. Its like when a good singer is singing a heartwrenched song. I can't name anybody that can play guitar with the same emotion that Larry does. You listen to him play a song like 'Danny Boy' and the feeling is unreal. He has definitely made his influential mark and has his own identity on guitar. You can hear Larry play two notes and you know it's him."
When asked what he likes about Larry's technique, Gary Brewer said, "I like that Larry uses the bass notes more than others tend to do. I think that the bass notes work well on guitar because they are more in the singing range. You listen to the notes that he plays and you will notice that they are the same notes that the voice can hit. In other words, the guitar and vocal are together. I like that."
Another aspect of Larry's guitar playing that is unique is that on songs like "Smoky Mountain Memories" and "Blue Mountain Memories" he tunes the guitar down two frets to F. In other words, he will loosen all of the strings from standard tuning down two frets and play out of the key of F using standard G position chords. Larry mentioned that he also plays a few songs, like "Rock of Ages" and "Green Pastures in the Sky" in a drop D tuning.
When discussing his rhythm guitar style, Larry said, "I listen to what is happening to determine what rhythm is needed. I try to round it out and make it full and give the tune what it calls for." Known for his soulful, heartfelt singing, Larry said that he likes to play his guitar to suit his singing. He says, "The guitar helps to keep your singing full and it takes up the slack."
When playing rhythm to fast tunes, Larry says that he will "ride on the sixth string" and not play much of a strum. He alternates between the 6th and 4th string and plays a short strum on the bass strings. On slower tunes he will play more of a full strum style rhythm in order to help fill in the gaps. He says that in his band he likes the bass man to stay on top of the beat, play with energy, and keep it simple. He says that he does not play many bass runs in his rhythm, and when asked if he changes his rhythm when playing behind the banjo versus the mandolin, Larry said, "I've been known to do that."
When Larry first started playing with the Stanley Brothers he was playing an early fifties Martin D-18. When Carter Stanley passed away, Larry played Carter's guitar for about a year (see photo on page 5). Then in 1967 he bought the guitar that he still plays today, a 1953 Martin D-28. The large distinctive pick guard, which has become his trademark, was already on the guitar when he bought it. He said that he heard talk that a big pick guard would kill the sound of a guitar and so at one point he took it off, but decided that the sound wasn't much different, so he put it back on. He says that although the pickguard is quite large, it is extra thin.
Because Larry plays a few of his songs tuned down to F, he uses two guitars on stage these days. His second guitar is a Stelling that he has had for about a year. Larry uses heavy gauge Mapes strings on his guitar (60, 50, 36, 28, 17, 13) and likes the action about medium height. He feels that medium gauge strings don't have the strength on the bottom end when he is playing on stage. He likes to use a Fender extra heavy pick.
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