One doesn’t come to a new recording from Larry Sparks expecting a radical departure: he does what he does, and he does it very well. Always has, and hopefully always will.
New Moon Over My Shoulder represents a celebration of Sparks’ 50th anniversary leading his Lonesome Ramblers. Bluegrass has changed a great deal since 1969, but Larry Sparks’ approach has not.
Sparks’ country-soul approach to bluegrass singing is on fine display. Two Gary Ferguson immediately provide evidence that Sparks hasn’t lost a bit of his range.
“I’m Really Leaving” is an up-tempo romp, a song allowing Sparks to breeze through a ‘leaving on a one-way track’ song. He’s always done well with these types of lighter songs, but his true mastery is of reflective numbers, “Tennessee 1949” and “John Deere Tractor,” for example.
Co-written by Ferguson and Shane Sullivan, “Henry Hill” is the next ‘great’ Sparks song. Capturing a soldier’s thoughts and fears at Manassas, 1861, this hard, honest chronicle rings with authenticity, a song of faith—in God, his comrades, his love—gently communicated by one of bluegrass music’s greatest surviving elder statesmen.
Songs of faith have always been a significant part of Sparks’ repertoire. Sparks returns to “New Highway,” recording it for at least the third time. No matter; as always, the telling is emotive and sincere. Great song, great performance. He has also previously recorded “Green Pastures in the Sky,” although not recently. Sparks’ guitar work on this piece is as notable as his clear voice and unshakable faith.
“Green Pastures in the Sky” is not the only nod to Ralph Stanley within New Moon Over My Shoulder. “I Only Exist,” which Sparks originally recorded with Stanley, is also included, and sounds as sweet as expected.
Lonesome (“New Moon Over My Shoulder”), optimistic (“Things Will Get Better”), and regretful (“I Was Wrong”) songs allow Sparks to cover the bluegrass spectrum, with “Annie’s Boy” providing the overwrought aspect many of us unabashedly appreciate.
Ron Stewart provides the banjo throughout the album, perhaps never as adroitly on “Take Me Back to West Virginia,” a number that has him poppin’ the strings as only he can. Lonesome Rambler Michael Feagan provides the right touches to this song, which comes from Daniel Crabtree. “Peacock Rag” is about as playful as the relatively sombre album gets, with Jeff Clair (mandolin) joining Sparks, Stewart, Feagan, and Matthew Madden (bass) for the romp. Clair and Evan Wilson share mandolin duties across the album.
Going old-school, New Moon Over My Shoulder is only available at this time on CD, no digital downloads just yet. With nice photography and design included, that feels just about right.
Larry Sparks hasn’t recorded too much the last decade, which makes New Moon Over My Shoulder that much more significant. Now 71 years old and a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame, Larry Sparks has nothing left to prove. Don’t tell his that though—I’m wanting more recordings of this quality. New Moon Over My Shoulder will certainly be on my (very crowded) list of favourite for 2019.