Larry Sparks admits that he has a little black book filled with the phone numbers of potential sidemen, just in case his backing band, the Lonesome Ramblers, needs a new player.
“It’s like anything else — you don’t know from one week to one month what people will do,” says the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame singer and guitarist. “When I get someone who is a good qualified player, a good harmony singer or a good travel companion, I try to keep them.”
He should know about leaving a great group. In 1969, Sparks quit his job as the lead vocalist for Ralph Stanley’s legendary band the Clinch Mountain Boys.
But he went on to build his own stellar career as a band leader — culminating in the 2004 and 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year awards. He has performed traditional bluegrass for more than half a century.
His decision to leave Stanley’s band didn’t happen overnight. “I felt like I had something to offer more than what I was doing,” said Sparks — known for his signature flatpicking on vintage Martins — during a recent phone interview from his home in southeast Indiana. “I felt I should go ahead and try, and I’m glad I did. I found my own style of singing and guitar playing and it became a recognizable style. … I finally got it to work.”
Sparks’ sound surfaces in songs such as “A Face in the Crowd,” “You Don’t Have to Move that Mountain,” “Love of the Mountains,” “John Deere Tractor,” and “Tennessee 1949.” Even with plenty of awards and a long discography to his credit, the 70-year-old hasn’t completed his career.
“I need to do another bluegrass album, another gospel album, and then an album with just me and the guitar,” says Sparks, who was just a teenager when he started playing with the Stanley Brothers (Ralph’s band before the Clinch Mountain Boys). “I need to get to work on it.”
Sparks calls his induction into the Hall of Fame induction “a nice honor” that he “appreciated very much.” But it didn’t slow his drive. Quite the opposite: “It shows I’ve donated something to the music, and I hope I have,” he says. “But it tells me also that I need to keep working. You can’t stop there.”
Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers play at 7:30pm Thursday, November 9, at the Feed and Seed (3715 Hendersonville Road, in Fletcher). Tickets are $28; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reserved seating. For more information, see feedandseednc.com or call 828-216-3492.