Larry Sparks appears Saturday at the Frontenac Hilton as part of the 11th Annual Gateway Bluegrass Festival, probably the biggest and best winter bluegrass event in the Midwest. More than just a string of showcases, the Gateway fest, like all bluegrass gatherings, is a fascinating culture. From morning to midnight, the hotel will be filled with talent contests and jam sessions, booths stacked with hard-to-find country and bluegrass tapes and CDs, and old-timers and young kids swapping stories of where the music has been and where it might yet go. On Friday, Grand Ole Opry legends and seminal innovators the Osborne Brothers will perform two sets: If you haven't seen them, prepare to be blown away. Next to the Del McCoury Band, the Osbornes may be the best touring bluegrass band in the country. Bobby Osborne, who turns 70 in December, can still hit and hold notes that might give a Swiss ski patrol vertigo, and brother Sonny, who has influenced more banjo players than anyone save Earl Scruggs, remains as mercurial and imaginative onstage as on recorded classics like "Rocky Top," "Ruby" and "Tennessee Hound Dog." As Dylan was to folk music, the Osbornes have been to bluegrass. They were among the first bands to go electric, adding pickups to their acoustic instruments, cranking the volume, experimenting with drums, twin banjos and steel guitars -- and generally flabbergasting a fairly conservative audience. Although they've long since dropped their electric instruments, the Osbornes have continued to explore bluegrass limits, recently adding a young fiddle player named Shad Cobb who lets loose some fantastically surprising, almost gypsylike melodies.
Friday's lineup is filled out by gospel-oriented group Little Roy and the Lewis Family, Valerie Smith, Lonesome Road and local bluegrassers the Smokehouse All Stars. Saturday's schedule winds up with Rounder artist Lynn Morris, the Flatt and Scruggs-styled Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show, the Chapman Family and fine local band Raven Moon. For more info about the Gateway Bluegrass Festival, call 217-243-3159.