march 2011

Larry Sparks: On Almost Home, many a melancholy moment of aching departures and abject wanderings, with all roads leading back to where the heart is.

Home, Where The Heart Is, And How Larry Sparks Got There

By David McGee

Larry Sparks

Though its music is largely upbeat if not always high-spirited, the narrative arc of Larry Spark’s moving new album, Almost Home, describes many a melancholy moment of aching departures and abject wanderings, with all roads leading back to where the heart is. A muscular display of traditional bluegrass prowess, the new long player in question hits every mark dead on: the lovingly crafted songs will get to anyone harboring warm memories of family and friends and a time of communion now long ago and far away—few of them are specifically love songs of the romantic sort, but rather about a love that runs deeper and unfailingly between blood kin and others close enough to be blood kin; Sparks’s signature singing guitar lines are flawless and emotional constructions, and his band—son Larry D. on bass, Ron Stewart on fiddle, Carl Berggren on mandolin, Tyler Mullins on banjo—more than meets the challenge their leader’s fluid lyricism poses (check out the heightened passion and electrifying technical displays Stewart, Berggren and Mullins summon in enlivening Sparks’s hard charging breakdown, “Back Road”); and, this being a Larry Sparks record, the singing is simple, unadorned, straightforward, but also subtly nuanced and a model of economical phrasing. Nothing outwardly showy here—that’s not what Sparks and his mates are about—but rather a solid outing overflowing with the human touch born of a commitment to making each musical moment memorable.

Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers perform Sparks’s classic ‘John Deere Tractor’ on For a free download of the full show go to

On the one hand, Sparks expresses a longing for an entire vanished world, as in Marshall Warwick’s steady loping “Bring ‘Em On Back,” with its evocations of “the Grand Ole Opry, Kitty Wells, Johnny & Jack” and a time on the Ryman stage when “them ol’ boys would clackety-clack.” Which leads to a remembrance of “the Sunday dinners your momma used to make,” with Sparks actually understating his obvious affection for these sentiments, keeping his emotions in check while letting Stewart carry much of the heat in his impassioned fiddling. On the other is an anticipation of a return to a place still accessible but left far behind in the wake of a life’s myriad twists and turns, in the beautiful title track, which kicks off the album with an affecting, descending guitar riff, easygoing and lilting, to set up Sparks’s eager vocal describing all the joys of the home to which he’s always returning in thought, and with a tinge of regret: “the world I left behind me is the one I kept longing for each day/I told mom and daddy I’d be coming back again/the years slipped away like all my promises to them.” At song’s end, after Stewart’s fiddle and Mullins’s banjo have underscored the singer’s heartache with simple, yearning solos, Sparks is back where he belongs, “on the front porch/with a million mountain memories on my mind,” at ease, his journey complete. Likewise, the midtempo, mandolin-flecked ballad, “Momma’s Apron Strings” and the subdued, waltz-flavored “Momma” offer, respectively, poignant scenes of home and family from earlier times, and a son’s heartfelt appreciation of a mother’s love and faith sustaining him throughout the day’s trials and tribulations.

Another Larry Sparks classic: ‘A Face In the Crowd’

A big part of Almost Home: the theme of the force of love and faith sustaining people separated by circumstances. The bustling “Picture Me There,” with Stewart leading the charge on fiddle and Mullins interjecting a frantic, rolling banjo solo at midpoint, finds Sparks raising a voice urgent in its vision of an imminent reunion with his beloved mate. Hank Cochran’s “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On,” with Sparks sounding uncannily like mid-period Ralph Stanley (once a long-term member of Stanley’s band, Sparks would know about sounding like Ralph), doesn’t offer as much hope for a reunion as does “Picture Me There,” but Sparks sings it with a lift in his voice, giving Cochran’s country classic a more promising subtext than most other interpreters have ventured. In this context, even “Gunfighter’s Revenge,” a rare bird of a bluegrass western ballad, by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, fits the storyline. In this “El Paso”-redolent tale fueled by Sparks’s own resonant acoustic guitar and Stewart’s double-tracked Texas fiddling, a gunfighter who’s been reformed by his new love returns to his six-shooter ways after learning she’s been shot dead by a man he despises, whom he promptly tracks down and slays. In the end, he hangs up his guns for good, changed for the better by her love reaching out from beyond the grave to touch his heart as he honors her pleas to walk the straight and narrow.

A record with such emotional themes as this needed a gospel number to send everyone home in the right frame of mind, and Sparks found the ideal one in John Reedy’s “Somebody Touched Me,” which both acknowledges divine guidance at work in our affairs and allows the listener a final, breathtaking display of rapid responses to Sparks’s hallelujah testimony by way of triumphant, soaring solo spots courtesy Stewart, Mullins and Berggren, with Sparks sneaking in a tasty, driving guitar solo before bringing the whole thing to a soothing, harmonized close. Another winner, Almost Home is one of the high-water marks in Sparks’s formidable catalogue, and a bluegrass moment to treasure.

Larry Sparks’s Almost Home is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024