Larry Sparks is a bluegrass singer/songwriter and guitarist, who is originally from Lebanon Ohio, and now hangs his hat in southern Indiana. After forming a popular high school band, Larry was offered an opportunity to perform with bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers, who were in town and needed a guitar player for the evening. With no audition and little time to prepare, Larry was thrown into the fire and went straight to the gig. It was a very successful night for Larry, as he was shortly asked to go on an extended tour with "The Stanley's" throughout the US. When Carter Stanley passed away in 1966, Larry became a member of Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys. After a successful tenure with them, Larry formed his own group "Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers". They put out a few records on some small labels at first, but when they signed with Starday Records, things really started getting going for the Lonesome Ramblers. They had early success with a song titled "John Deere Tractor" and approximately 60 records later, Larry and the boys are still going strong. Along the way Larry has made many friends, and has sat in with many bluegrass and country stars with the likes of: Bill Monroe, Porter Wagner, Ricky Scruggs and many others. In 2015, The International Bluegrass Music Association inducted Larry into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, which is an honor he surely deserves. I recently talked to Larry about his career.
R.V.B. - Hey Larry, How are you... this is Rob von Bernewitz
L.S. - Yes sir. I'm doing fine, how are you doing?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. It's dark out here... is it still light by you?
L.S. - Were dark... How's your weather?
R.V.B. - Incredibly warm, actually. Last year at this time it was about 20 degrees and now it's about 60 degrees.
L.S. - Good... you deserve it.
R.V.B. - (hahaha) Thank you for taking this time. The first thing I want to say is congratulations on your career and being inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame. That must have been quite an honor for you.
L.S. - Yeah, it really was. I didn't know that was going to happen. I found out just a few short weeks before. It came as a surprise to me, but quite an honor. I'm glad to receive it, and it was a great night in Raleigh.
R.V.B. - Well, you have to say that you paid your dues. You've been at this for a while. You have over 50 albums out, right?
L.S. - Something like that... 50 to 60 albums. I'll have to count those someday.
R.V.B. - (hahaha) You must have a lot of storage space.
L.S. - A big shelve. I've done quite a few recordings with other people also.
R.V.B. - In a supporting position?
L.S. - You used to do around two albums per year. That was the going thing... years ago. In the last few years, it's come down to one. If you can do one album per year it's pretty good. To me, it material where the problem lies a lot. That gives it time to run its course and do what it's going to do.
R.V.B. - You grew up in Ohio?
L.S. - Yes sir.
L.S. - Well, the Kentucky people came across the Ohio river bridge and took over Ohio without firing a shot.
R.V.B. - (hahaha)
L.S. - My mother, my dad, and my folks, are all from Kentucky. They all moved into Ohio many years ago for work. They did great. Ohio has always been a work state. You could always find jobs in Ohio... and you still can.
R.V.B. - Were your mother and father also musical?
L.S. - No, not really. They sang a little bit... my dad could play a little bit but not really that much. My dad was born in 1902 and my mother in 1906. I was raised from that older generation. They were more concerned more about work then they were about music. They knew how to work and survive.
R.V.B. - I guess they were young adults at the stock market crash.
L.S. - They came together in the 1920's. It wasn't an easy time back in those days. The 20's and 30's were not too good on a lot of folks. Those people knew how to survive and get through it. I was raised from the old generation of people. The music that I listened to was old time traditional country, bluegrass and gospel. I think it just happened, Robert. My career just came on, and kept growing and growing.
R.V.B. - Did you ask your parents for a guitar?
L.S. - We had one around the house. It was an old f-hole Harmony. That's what I learned to play on. My sister was very helpful in learning the chords and we used to sing together in church. We did a little home recording. If you remember the little recorders that you could get back in those days. I really think that some things are meant to be, and it probably was for me.
R.V.B. - So I guess you probably got better and better, and I see that you had a high school band. You even dabbled a little bit with rock and roll?
L.S. - Yeah, I've always liked 50's rock and roll. I like 30's and 40's music... big band music. Back in the day, those people really played. They were very talented. If you listen to those old records out of the 40's... they were great musicians. It wasn't only button pushing. They got out there and they really did it. That's the way bluegrass is. That's the way it's supposed to be. That's how I try to keep my music... pure... simple... real... and just do it. I don't like any gimmicks. I'm not a gimmick person. I like to do it real.
R.V.B. - I watched a few of your videos on YouTube. The music sounds very nice... very polished. Even the older songs that you recorded. I noticed that there was 2 different versions of "John Deere Tractor". The 1st one was a little slower. It seemed like you picked up the tempo.
L.S. - Trying to get it right.
R.V.B. - (haha) What inspired you with that song?
L.S. - Well, the story that it tells. I've got the original reel to reel tape of that song. It was given to me several years ago by the studio. I changed it for the way I wanted it for myself. I didn't change any of the words in it. I changed a lit bit of the melody... not a lot but some... to suit me. It is different. It caught on to a lot of bluegrass people all over the United States. Everybody was familiar with that song. They liked it... it was different. It fit me and it fit in the realm of bluegrass.
R.V.B. - It's a very nice song. When you had your high school bands you obviously caught a break by hooking up with The Stanley Brothers. How did that come about?
L.S. - They were coming through the area and playing shows. The Stanley Brothers were very, very popular back in their day... the late 50's and 60's. They would come through, and they knew the radio DJ. They needed a guitar player, so they talked to him and he told them about me. I had met the DJ before, and he knew I knew their music and could play their style. That's kind of how I got into it with them.
R.V.B. - Did you go for an audition?
L.S. - No, I just went to the place where we met, and just went on stage.
R.V.B. - Right from the get go, Huh?
L.S. - Yes sir.
R.V.B. - I gather things went well, because you had a pretty long tenure with them. Did you hit the road with them right away?
L.S. - Yep, we did some shows and they would use me part time. George Shuffler worked with them and played lead guitar. George, Carter, and Ralph worked real good together. George could really sing. They were matched perfect. George was taking off some, in the later years, so I would do the fill in shows.
R.V.B. - Where were some of the places that they took you to?
L.S. - We went all over Virginia, Kentucky and Chicago. In fact, the Stanley's did an album at the University of Chicago, and I was with them on this live recording. I believe it was in 1965. It's a really good album. The Stanley's were great on it, and I played the lead guitar for them.
R.V.B. - Do you have any stories that may of happened while you were on the road with them?
L.S. - I don't know about stories but we did a lot of traveling and worked a lot of dates. After Carter passed away in 66, I went on with Ralph for the next 3 years. We played a lot of drive-in theaters. You would play on top of the concession stands. You would play before the movie and everyone would give you an applause, because the sound system was hooked up to the speakers by their cars. They way that they gave you a hand was, they would blow their horn.
R.V.B. - Those must have been great times.
L.S. - Yes, and a lot of times we had to tie the bass on top of the car. The Stanley's didn't have a bus. That was the traveling car days.
R.V.B. - Did you ever break down anywhere?
L.S. - Well the Stanley's always kept a new automobile. They were pretty successful in not breaking down. After I started my band, I was also traveling by car. We had Cadillac's back in them days... back when you could really get a car that was comfortable to travel in. I eventually graduated a little later into buses. I've been through 8 buses in my career. I'm on number 8 right now.
L.S. - I graduated next to a cutaway Kay guitar. You don't see many of those. It's a cutaway, like an electric... and it's a great ole' guitar. It was a big blonde guitar. I had that for quite some time. Then I got a D-18 Martin guitar. That was a nice guitar. It was from the late 40's.
R.V.B. - What are you using these days?
L.S. - Robert, back in 1967 I bought a guitar that I still play. It's the same one that I've always played.
R.V.B. - I noticed it has a full pick guard.
L.S. - Yes sir. It has a full pick guard. It's a 1954 D-28 Martin. I found it in 66 but I bought it in 67, and I've been playing it ever since. It's been in all my shows and also on my recordings.
R.V.B. - Did you buy it in a music store?
L.S. - No, I found it in a night club in to be exact... in Cincinnati. That's where I bought it.
R.V.B. - Did somebody that you were playing with have it?
L.S. - Well, it was a little club there, and the Stanley's would come through, and different artists would play there. It was called the Ken-Mill Tavern... in Cincinnati. The guy that owned the tavern had this guitar. He had it for sale and was gonna sell it. It was kind of a staff guitar to use at the club. All different people could play it. I liked it. It was different. The sound of it really suited the way I play. I bought it, and it's been 48 years now, I've been playing it... the same guitar.
R.V.B. - Now when you started The Lonesome Ramblers, did you have a group of people that you were playing around with who you asked to join the band?
L.S. - Yes and no. My sister Bernice, she played and sang in the band. Joe Isaacs was on the banjo. A friend of mine David Cox on the mandolin. We picked up different bass players. That's the band I had started. Sometimes band members do something else, and it don't work out. I went to a couple more band members Wendy Miller and Mike Lilly. That was the band that was with me when I recorded with Starday Records in Nashville. It was the 3rd album I did after I started my band, and it was called "Ramblin' Bluegrass". Starday Records was a very big label back in those days. They recorded a lot of bluegrass and country music. King Records was actually located in Cincinnati... Robert. That's where the studio was. Everybody would come there to record. King Records and Starday merged together, and they moved to Nashville. King has always been a very big label. They did my album in 1972, and back then they had the single records. They would physically send them out to radio stations all over the country. That was a big boost for me to be on Starday/King Records. That really helped me a lot and got me running.
L.S. - Yeah, that was several years ago. I first got doing the shows with him in the early 70's. I had met him before that in the 60's. We sang together on the stage in different shows. When I was with Ralph, we'd all join in and have a little jam thing on stage. After I started my band, he always seemed to want to help me, and do things for me in the business. He booked me a lot of shows around the country, and back in them days, it was a big help and a good boost. He was very good to me.
R.V.B. - Now you've obviously have played a lot of places, are there any real memorable shows that you have played that really stick out?
L.S. - There's really several. If I say one, than I'm leaving out many others. They're all very special, but as far as the one that stands out... I played at a 4th of July celebration in Washington DC. There seemed like a million people out in front of you. That stood out to me. We played near the Washington Monument. The Grand Ole' Opry is another place that stood out to me, because I've played as a guest a few times over the years. I grew up listening to the Opry on the weekends, when I was a kid. Hearing the old singers and entertainers and they were very good. That's embedded in me, and I got to play The Grand Ole' Opry at The Ryman Auditorium. They moved the Opry... I call it the "New Opry". It's been there about 30 years now... or longer... out on Music Valley Drive north of Nashville. That's always a memorable experience.
R.V.B. - They Ryman Theater is hallowed ground for a bluegrass and country artist.
L.S. - The Ryman Theater is a great place. It was quite an experience and really stands out to me. I'm not a member of the Opry but I would sure take the offer if I was ever asked.
R.V.B. - Well, things are still happening for you... you are very popular. I looked at your schedule and you're playing quite a few festivals. You play the Bill Monroe Festival. It seems that you're headlining more and more shows.
L.S. - I've been busy... business is good. People have been good. I can tour all over the United States. There's a fan base for Larry Sparks. I'm very blessed for that, but it takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of years to make this thing work... to get it where it needs to be. I have to say that I've never not made it in this business. I'm not saying I've always had it that great. When you're in music, it's not always an easy business. It takes something special and all I had was me. I've always had a good band and a band has to have a leader. You've got to have a style and identity. That's what I have... that's what I've built all these years. I have a style... identity... you know who Larry Sparks is. If you follow the music, you know who I am. If you hear my song on the radio... you know it's me. My style just happened. I never wanted to sound like Bill Monroe or The Stanley Brothers. I can sing that music, but you can't pattern yourself after someone else. You have to have something different. I'm still doing traditional music. I can twist it around, and do my own thing with it to make it different, but it's still traditional based. It's still in the realm of traditional music. That's a lot to do with why I have become Larry Sparks... my twist is different and that's what you have to have.
R.V.B. - You do have a unique style... a very good voice... you do surround yourself with excellent musicians. This may be a tough question and I know you've written a ton of songs... are any of them your favorites?
L.S. - Well, that's not a good question Robert.
R.V.B. - (hahaha) I'm sure most of the songs are near and dear to you.
L.S. - They are, and it's hard to pick out a favorite. You have songs that are part of you... part of your career. I appreciate all of them... that I've been fortunate enough to have. There's many songs that have been good to me. It's hard to put your finger on one song for me.
R.V.B. - I understand. Have you lived in Indiana for most of your life?
L.S. - Yes, I live in south east Indiana. I've been in the current house for 22/23 years. I live in an old house that was built back in 1877. it's an old brick Victorian farm house. I live out here in the farming country. It's a good place to live. Things are supposed to be a little slower paced but some things change. Looking at the map, most of my work is based in the east part of the country out to Oklahoma/Texas. In the north from Canada down to Florida... half of the United States. If you look at Indiana, it's pretty much the center of everything.
R.V.B. - It's a good location for staging.
L.S. - It's a good location to work out of, and you're pretty much in the center of the whole shebang. I do get out west but I haven't been out in California in some time. I want to get back out there in the future and do some shows. There's good people out there that appreciate the music.
R.V.B. - Do you have a music room where people come over to work on things?
L.S. - I have an office setup. That's where I work on things. I have a studio out in the garage. We work on stuff there too. It's good to have that because it's a little place where you can get away and think... and work on stuff... come up with ideas... and be creative. Speaking for me, I find I get more creative when I don't get involved in a lot of music, so when you do get together, the creativeness comes easier to you. It's hard to explain... it's hard to be creative when you're listening to a lot of different types of music. It can interfere with your creativeness.
R.V.B. - What do you feel about the state of country and bluegrass music these days, with the internet? Has it changed?
L.S. - Yeah, it's changed a lot. One good thing about it is, we have a world full of people that still likes what we are doing. There's a lot of young people coming into bluegrass... the middle aged and older people are still there. There's a world full of them that appreciate traditional music.
R.V.B. - Bluegrass seems to be one of the genres that is picking up momentum and is actually getting stronger.
L.S. - It is. Right now, it could be as strong as it's been since the 1940's. When the late 50's came in, it started dying down a little bit because rock and roll and country music got bigger... Presley was there, and all of that hurt bluegrass. Bill Monroe was very independent... he kept things going.
R.V.B. - He toughed it out in the hard times.
L.S. - He held to what he had. That's what I do... I hold this music... what I have. In my corner of bluegrass, I'm holding to it, and keeping it traditional based, and I won't change. I might improve, but I won't change. I don't need to change... it's worked all these years. The fans are there, and I want to do all I can for them. The music needs somebody to take care of it. Bluegrass music needs somebody to nourish it and take care of it.
R.V.B. - Why do you suppose bluegrass never really took to having percussion in it?
L.S. - Bluegrass is meant to be played with acoustic instruments. I don't have anything against any other types of music... electric instruments... drums... in some forms of music, you need that. In what we do, you don't need it. We play on bad sound systems sometimes, but it's nice to have a good one. We never use earphones or headphones... I don't get into that.
L.S. - As I said "It was a surprise to me that it even happened". I didn't know about it until shortly before the event. A friend of mine... Allison Krause, wanted to do a little interview with me to go on stage, and tell a little story. We talked, and she got what she thought she needed. There was a nice crowd there... the auditorium was full... bleachers and all the floor people. When I walked out there it seemed very nice. The people accepted me very well. They knew about my music and my career, and had been following me for years. It was a great night to be in Raleigh, and accept the Hall of Fame induction. I'll never forget that... it was really great.
R.V.B. - Congratulations to you for that achievement. Through all of your hard work you're career is still going strong and even getting stronger. You've stuck it out through good times and bad. You've created a lot of fantastic original music with your own signature style, and you were rewarded by the industry. I really appreciate you taking this time to speak with me.
L.S. - I appreciate your interest Robert.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Larry Sparks visit his website www.larrysparks.com
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