may 2008


Larry Sparks is one of the greatest bluegrass vocalists of all time, and this splendid 14-song overview does his artistry proud. Among its multitudinous virtues are no less than four songs—three of the first five, in fact—by one of Sparks's favored songwriting teams, Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm. The duo's plaintive reminiscence of another time, another place, "Tennessee 1949," leads off the album in what is a showcase for Spark's deeply emotional, beautifully modulated exploration of the narrator's yearning for the small town pleasures of his youth. This is followed by an acutely observed Goble-Drumm testimony of abiding love, the gently shuffling "Colleen Malone," its twist being that the Irish sailor telling the story is lamenting the death of and vowing eternal fidelity to the titular lass whom "the angels had called away" while he was at sea. Hard to imagine how a record could get better from that point, but it does, as the retrospective dips into cuts from seven different albums to show the breadth and depth of Sparks's legacy. Heartbreakers of all kinds abound, notable among these being the tender letter home to mama that is "John Deere Tractor" in which a son confesses to a bitter romance he likens to "trying to plow a furrow/where the soil is made of steel" and longs for the sanctity of home again; the country blues tearjerker "You Could Have Called," to which Ricky Skaggs's crying fiddle lends an extra measure of ache and Tommy Boyd adds a lonesome howl of a dobro solo; and the stark, desultory kissoff, "Imitation Of the Blues." However,  these are balanced out by some boisterous, celebratory interludes. "I'd Like To Be a Train" is an occasion for some spectacular, frantic vocal and instrumental work, with Barry Coltrane's hard-charging banjo punctuations getting a run for their money by an equally breathtaking mandolin flurry courtesy Randy Jones; and "Just Lovin' You," a Larry and Bernice Sparks original, is a toe-tapping, close-harmonized beauty of a love song, remarkable both for its high spirits and for a whipsaw guitar solo by Sparks himself to complement Mike Lilly's buoyant banjo support. This is as smart a "best of" package that's come down the pike in some time. As with any artist of Larry Sparks's though, the good news to report is that there's a lot more where this comes from.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024