Some voices have it: Meeting the diaphragm of a microphone, sending a tremor of electricity toward tape, they unfold and reveal themselves, naked, without artifice. Sinatra had it, as did Billie Holiday and Ray Price. They could take a breath and the whole world might be remade. Larry Sparks, perhaps the finest singer in bluegrass today, has that kind of voice. A lead vocalist won't last 30 years in bluegrass without considerable skill, but listen to Sparks sing, and you know that having chops isn't the half of it.
Sparks was born in 1947 in Lebanon, Ohio, and grew up listening to Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe on Cincinnati radio stations. But bluegrass wasn't an obvious, or even likely, choice. "When I was real young," Sparks says, "I was always drawn to acoustic sounds. When I was 16 or 17, I started with the Stanley Brothers. Before that, I played with local bands. There wasn't a whole lot going on back then, not like today. Bluegrass wasn't a very popular thing to do when I was growing up; it really wasn't popular at all. The music has always held its own pretty good, but back in the '50s and '60s, most people didn't take bluegrass that seriously. It was looked on as corny music. You know -- cornfields, roll your britches up, pull your shoes off and play the banjo."
By his teens, Sparks' guitar-playing had developed enough that he could gig with local rock and country bands. The Stanley Brothers were looking for a guitarist to help out with dates in and around southern Ohio and had heard about the young man's playing. A call from Carter Stanley introduced Sparks to the world of professional bluegrass; Sparks filled in with the Stanley Brothers for a year-and-half. When Carter died in 1966, Ralph Stanley asked the teenager to join the band permanently, and he did so, this time for three years. Sparks' early recordings with the post-Carter Clinch Mountain Boys show a fine singer, clearly in awe of the music that had come before him and trying to find himself in it. If Ralph had wanted a singer to fill his brother's shoes and maintain the continuity of the Stanley sound, he'd found him in Sparks. The young man's voice was a dead ringer for Carter's mellow, husky tenor. But he didn't sound like himself -- not yet.
Sparks cut five albums with Ralph Stanley, then lit out on his own in 1969. Eventually he'd find the songs and the identity that would distinguish him in a genre that, more than any other, measures itself against its imposing founding fathers.
"My first band had more of the Stanley sound than I needed," Sparks admits. "I needed new songs, and my sister helped me come up with new things. I needed a different drive to get away from the Stanley sound. When Mike Lilly and Wendy Miller came in, we came up with a different sound altogether. If you don't have new songs, new material, you can't get a new sound. I had to have that first. You can have it in your head what you want to do, but you have to have material to work with. You have to be creative with the material. The way I look at it is, if I have a new song, I think, 'Well, would that suit Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley?' If I thought it really suited them, I'd change it so that it would suit me, to get away from their mold."
Sparks has been often been called a voice of "traditional bluegrass"; applied to him, the term is rather misleading. His sound has none of the "high lonesome" quality of Bill Monroe's, and his approach to material has been far more eclectic and mutable than Ralph Stanley's old-time vision. Sparks' musical identity marries muscular, bluesy guitar work and a robust, warm tenor with fresh, contemporary material, songs that would be as appropriate for Hank Williams as they would for John Prine.
Over the years, Sparks has become one of bluegrass' great storytellers. One of his best-known songs, "John Deere Tractor" (which the Judds later recorded), was found on an anonymous demo tape in a studio; though no one knows who wrote the song, Sparks placed his mark on its archetypal tale of a country kid who loses his soul in the city. He sings from within the character as if he'd lived every line, as if more than just spinning a story were at stake: His voice alternates between a dreamlike reverie and a decimated abdication before the world.
Mama, so much perfume I thought I'd drown
And the Lord didn't seem to be nowhere around
I fell like a flower from the vine
She was so pretty, Lord knows
I thought she would bring me joy
She laughed, she called me country boy, Ma
And after she had been so kind
Sparks composed the opening guitar lick to "John Deere Tractor" (repeated as a motif throughout the song), and it's one of the most perfect and bittersweet moments in all of country music, a seamless merging of form and content. A melody on the low strings descends like leaves spiraling down from trees past their prime, moving like the refrain's firelight "that shimmers and shines," a light the singer seems to have lost forever. Like so much of Sparks' work, the song has that miraculous convergence of voice, words and music that makes for a single, lasting image of a human life.
Sparks' latest album, Special Delivery (Rebel), is not only one of the best records he's ever made but a high-water mark for bluegrass at the turn of the century. The music is spare, free of gimmicks and extraneous leads, and every arrangement homes in on the stories the singer tells. Those narratives may draw on stock images of cabins, hills, mountains and farms, but the voice makes them so much more than nostalgic cutouts. Even if you've lived in the city all your life, the images of these songs just might reflect back a self you never would have known without them. That's the unique magic of Larry Sparks' voice.
"I don't mean this to take anything away from anyone," Sparks says, "but there was never really anyone I patterned myself after. The energy comes from within me."