Born and raised in Lebanon OH, Larry Sparks is one of the few early generation bluegrass pioneers still performing today. Although Larry played in country and rock music bands in high school, in 1964 his bluegrass career began when he joined the Stanley Brothers on the recommendation of aquaintence Moon Mullins. “Carter Stanley is the one that got me with him and Ralph,” Larry said. “He heard my playing, and liked what I was doing, so they hired me part time.”
Full Time Position
Sadly, Carter Stanley passed away in 1966. Nevertheless, Ralph Stanley hired Larry full time as his guitar player going forward. Sparks would tour with The Clinch Mountain Boys for three years, playing on recordings of original cuts such as, “I Only Exist,” “Sharecropper’s Son,” and, “Going Up Home To Live in Green Pastures.”
In late 1969, Larry left the Clinch Mountain Boys to form his own band, The Lonesome Ramblers where he’s been the band leader for over 50 years. “I really didn’t have any players in mind specifically when I started,” he told me. “I just came up on this one and that one, until things fell into place.” But as seems to be inherent to the bluegrass world, band leaders tend to always be looking for musicians. “I think the longest I had someone play for me was 10 years,” Larry told me, “But usually the tenure is about five years before someone moves on. Either life on the road is not for them, or they want to move on to their own thing. You know they’re not going to stay. Especially if they’re young. But that’s okay. You adapt. Also, a lot of people are not cut out for traveling like we do,” Larry said.
Larry went on to win the 2004 and 2005 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Award, as well as the 2005 winner of the Album of the Year, and Recorded Event of the Year for his album 40, celebrating his 40th year in bluegrass music. Sparks is also a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame. Larry and his band still perform over 150 dates a year, and just released a new CD on Rebel Records, Take Me Back To West Virginia.
Still Taking It Seriously
Still going strong 55 years later, Larry takes what he does still very seriously. “I’ve got guys who work for me. It’s a business. So you’ve got to take care of the company or it’ll go down if you don’t,” Larry told me when I asked him what keeps him working so much. “We’ve done at least 125 dates this year so far,” he said. “But things have sure changed a lot today though. A lot of the older promoters and people in charge of booking are not doing it anymore. We used to be able to make a hand shake deal and go with it. You can’t do that anymore.”
Larry said he felt like the dates were so much easier to book 30 years ago compared to today too. “I think part of it is due to the fact that we’ve lost a lot of the older people who used to do this,” he said. “You’ve got to burn the midnight oil a little harder that’s for sure. But there are still a lot of good people out there that are behind this business, that’s for sure.”
“It takes a lot of devotion to this kind if work to make it work right.” Larry says they typically work their way from Texas, up into the northern United States, and sometimes even into Canada. “There are a lot of traditional minded people up there,” he exclaimed. “Canada is a great place to play. We’d love to go back and play there again.”
Even when Larry started playing with the Stanley Brothers over 50 years ago, he knew playing bluegrass music is what he wanted to do for a living. “I sure was hoping I could – even back then. I thought I had it in me to make it for sure. You’ve got to make yourself a product, and make yourself stylish,” he said. Make yourself and your music your own style. That’s what I did. It was pretty natural for me to do. But I had to eventually get away from the Stanley sound though. Nothing against that, but I had to follow that with something that was my own sound.”
“The business has been good to me. It’s not easy though. I’m not complaining, but this is a lot of hard work,” he said. “You know, you sacrifice some things, like anybody does for any other business. But you’ve got to have it in your heart, your soul, and your mind to take care of this music. I think it was really meant for me to be doing what I’m doing when I look back.”
With more than 20 albums to his credit, and working well over a 150 shows a year, there’s no doubt there’s more good traditional bluegrass music still to come from Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers. Be sure to check out their latest release, New Moon Over My Shoulder.