Over fifty years as a bluegrass professional, Larry Sparks has honed a full-bodied, soulful approach to singing bluegrass. He has a wonderful right hand, maintaining unbreakable rhythm while contributing leads that lend a bluesy country resonance to his songs. With calm assurance that has been mistaken for standoffishness, Sparks is a gentlemanly ambassador for bluegrass.
As was the case a decade ago with 40, on this new set Sparks has teamed with some of the most talented musicians and singers in bluegrass to celebrate his 50th year in the music. As special as that collection was- and it was justifiably awarded the IBMA’s Album of the Year in 2005- this set is even more satisfying.
More so than on the previous offering, Sparks and his band form the instrumental core of Lonesome and Then Some. This time out, the guests are less centres of attention, allowing the focus to remain more obviously on Sparks. There appears to have been less emphasis this time on getting a bunch of names to work with Sparks than there was on simply constructing a stunning bluegrass album.
The Lonesome Ramblers appear throughout Lonesome and Then Some. Tyler Mullins handles the banjo duties and Larry D. Sparks takes care of the bass. Jackie Kincaid’s tenor is recognizable on most songs. Long-time Sparks’ compatriot David Harvey is the featured mandolin player, with Ron Stewart fiddling. This consistency provides the album with favorable cohesiveness.
As Sparks has done in the past, “In Those Days” looks back on a time when things were seemingly better. While the song, written by Connie Leigh, takes a characteristically rose-colored view of the past, there is no arguing with the power of Sparks’ interpretation. Similar fire is heard within “We Prayed,” a Sandy Shortridge song in which tension builds in the face of a storm and “Journey to the Light,” a song of the coalmining life from the same writer.
Impressive is the album’s feature track, “Bitterweeds.” Stewart lays the foundation for this expansive narrative (from Barbara Wilkinson), one that should become a Sparks standard; “I guess she always knew” that her love would never return, but she only left the “dusty window” when she was carried from the home. Modulating his vocal approach to utilize precise lyrical imagery, Sparks creates a compelling and mournful character study.
Curly Seckler sings tenor to Sparks’ lead on a pair of songs, both of which I believe they have sung a few times, if not together. “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” has the added bonus of Bobby Osborne on mandolin, while “We’re Going To Sing, Sing, Sing” features Jesse McReynolds on mando. Seckler’s voice adds just the right depth to the choruses of these songs.
Osborne appears on a second song, also singing this time on “Letter to My Darling.” This classic sound- Sparks singing lead and baritone on the chorus, Osborne with a clear tenor, a tight five-instrument arrangement featuring a real nice break from the mandolin master- makes this track an immediate favourite.
Lonesome and Then Some is a decidedly masculine affair. Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall bring some softness to “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures.” Both appeared on 40, and hearing them together here is nothing short of special.
Appropriately, Ralph Stanley lend his distinctive and continually dynamic voice to “Loving You Too Well,” a great Carter Stanley song. In bluegrass tradition, the dramatic pairing of two vocal legends doesn’t overshadow the crisp precision of the instrumentalists. Kincaid’s mandolin break is brief but notable, and Stewart steps up for a brief cameo, as does Mullins. While so expected to make it appear pedestrian, the performance of this arrangement is truly excellent in its execution.
Capping another in a line of terrific Larry Sparks albums- Almost Home, I Don’t Regret a Mile, The Last Suit You Wear– Lonesome and Then Some concludes with an archival recording from 1995. Joining the Blue Grass Boys at Bean Blossom, Sparks duets with Bill Monroe on “In the Pines.” The energetic spontaneity and obvious fan appeal of this performance overshadows any lack of precision that may exist.
Larry Sparks has long been one of the stars of bluegrass. He has earned his status as a legend of the music. Lonesome and Then Some: A Classic 50th Celebration may mark Sparks’ golden anniversary since joining the Clinch Mountain Boys, but it is just as unequivocally evidence that he isn’t going to be relinquishing his rightful place as a denizen of bluegrass’ artistic leadership anytime soon.