CD Review: Larry Sparks – Ministry in Song

I found it difficult to write a review of Larry Sparks’ latest — an all-gospel effort. I’m not an outwardly religious person, but I went to Sunday school as a youngster, sang in church junior choir, and have read some of the Bible and a number of books on theology and religious philosophy. I grew up on gospel recordings by the Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers – so I know the genre. My first reaction to a bluegrass gospel record is always the quality of the bluegrass musicianship. Then I ponder the overall “message” of the song and the lyric construction.

My first reaction to Larry’s new CD is “Wow, this is stark!” Minimalist to an extreme, if such a phrase makes any sense. Sparks’ typical 4-piece band with banjo and mandolin is augmented by guest fiddler Ronnie Stewart. The band’s performances are so stripped down that by comparison Ronnie Stewart almost sounds like he’s showing off, although believe you me his fiddling is also restrained, at least for Ron Stewart. The recording itself is so far from lush that I struggle to describe it. Clean, air-filled, “spartan” maybe…

This CD is really about Larry’s amazing voice and sincerity and DEEPLY held belief in, as he would say, King Jesus. Everything else is just economical support that doesn’t divert your attention.

The title of the project is apt – Ministry in Song. I’ve seen live shows by Larry in the year before COVID, and especially on a festival Sunday morning gospel set, he concludes with very warm testimony to his Christian beliefs. He does regard his performances as a ministry, it’s obvious.

The songs on this album are mostly personal testimony songs. There are only a few of what I, with my Sunday School background, would call “story songs”. “Keep Your Eyes on Jesus,” written by one of Sparks’ current favorite writers Daniel Crabtree, is a jaunty road map to Heaven. “House of Gold” is the Hank Williams chestnut, done here with just Larry’s voice, guitar, bass fiddle and old fashioned bluesy harmonica from guest Clinch Mountain Boy John Rigsby. It’s really wonderful and is supported by a fine video.

“Where We’ll Never Say Farewell” was written by Eva Sparks, expressing the longing to achieve Heaven. There’s a fine trio chorus featuring mandolinist Evan Wilson. “King Jesus” is one of Larry’s older numbers brought back around – it’s in the upbeat key of B feeling with a good banjo kickoff like the similar sounding “Take Your Shoes Off Moses” from Ralph Stanley. “Holdin’ On” is another Crabtree composition that is started off with a bass note from the bottom of the well that is Larry’s old Martin guitar. It’s another personal perseverance testimonial, with a good trio chorus arrangement. It has real gravity, and Sparks’ voice is tender.

“Thank You Lord” by Neil Brackett is just guitar and bass and a trio chorus. It reminded me of a similar old song from the Marshall Family. But it’s really about Larry’s voice, guitar and personal conviction. “Lord Show Me the Way” is one of Larry’s own compositions led off by good peppy waltz-time banjo rolls from Jacob Wright. It has the old Stanley Brothers feel for sure, especially Ron Stewart’s fiddling. We even get a true-to-form Sparks guitar break.

Governor Jimmy Davis (of “You Are My Sunshine” fame) wrote “Someone to Care” which is delivered warmly and slowly with twin fiddles and a trio chorus. The good Governor also contributed To “My Mansion in the Sky.” Here it’s straight bluegrass gospel with a Flatt & Scruggs style banjo kick off. It’s one of the only metaphorical songs on the album – riding the train to heaven.

“Jesus Won’t You Guide Me” is another Crabtree creation. Larry kicks it off at a peppy pace with a Mother Maybelle style guitar break. “All Over Me,” also from Crabtree, is a deliberate waltz again using just guitar and bass with a trio chorus. It exemplifies the “stark” performance style Larry is known for in these later years of his career. It’s wonderful to hear the massive tone Larry Sparks gets out of his old guitar. It’s an entirely different “wonderfulness” at the other end of the guitar spectrum from the greatness of, say, the great Tony Rice.

The package concludes with Hank Williams’ greatest gospel song “I Saw the Light.” Larry really belts out his “Praise the Lord” on this fine old number. From Roy Acuff to Bill Monroe and everyone in between, you just can’t beat this song for a good gospel closer.

Larry Sparks’ voice is really amazing – it and his guitar are the only “lush” things on this CD. His voice has improved every year since he started as Ralph Stanley’s lead singer in 1967, and he was GOOD even then! Now that Larry’s in his 70s his voice has acquired tenderness and warmth, humility and sincerity. No longer the young gunslinger of traditional bluegrass, his steely gray hair and craggy face tell you he’s making music that really means something to him, that he hopes will really mean something to you too.

Rebel CD 1875

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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