PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 14, 2006

Bluegrass Comes to the City

by Jim Newsom

When you think of bluegrass music, you think of the rolling hills of Kentucky or the wide open spaces of southwestern Virginia’s Appalachian mountain country. The city is the last thing that’s likely to pop into your head.

But Saturday night, bluegrass comes to the city, to the heart of Norfolk’s arts community, when the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music host the first “Bluegrass in Ghent” concert in the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theatre. The evening promises to be a good one, filled with banjos, mandolins, fiddles, acoustic guitars and mournful vocal harmonies.

Local favorites East Virginia open the program, followed by relative newcomers (10-years together) Code Blue, a high-energy quintet with a classic instrumental blend that has made quite a name for itself in this part of the world. The headliner is Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, who won last year’s “Album of the Year” and “Recorded Event of the Year” trophies from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Larry himself took home the “Male Vocalist of the Year” award for the second straight year.

I called him the other day at his home in Indiana and asked how he kept his music fresh after forty years in the biz.

“I guess I don’t listen to a lot of music,” was his surprising reply. “That helps me keep it fresh. I don’t fill my head with a lot of music. I don’t just burn my thoughts up that way.”

Sparks, who is halfway through his 59th year, has been a mainstay on the bluegrass scene since the mid-‘60s. He first started playing guitar when he was six years old after hearing country music on the local radio station in his hometown of Lebanon, Ohio. He developed a regional reputation while still in high school, playing in country and rock bands, but it was the sweet sound of bluegrass that most captured his attention.

“I guess it’s just the acoustic sound, the pure-string acoustic sound,” he explained. “There was a lot of rock-n-roll in the ‘50s when I was a kid. Probably in the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, bluegrass wasn’t a cool thing to play. Rock-n-roll came in and took over things, including this music.”

But he found his place with one of the biggest bluegrass bands of all time:

“I started off with the Stanley Brothers, who were a top name in the business. But they never did call their music bluegrass music; they called it more old-time country. I don’t think they ever cared too much about using the name ‘bluegrass.’

“I was about sixteen, and they heard about me and called me up. A friend of mine, he owned a radio station and he was friends with the Stanley Brothers. And he put me in touch with ‘em. Looking back, it was sure a great opportunity that helped me a lot.”

Sparks started off as the teenaged lead guitarist for the Stanley Brothers, but after Carter Stanley’s death in December, 1966, he became lead singer with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for the next three years. In 1970, he left to form his first edition of the Lonesome Ramblers, and he’s been ramblin’ ever since.

Since that time he’s built a healthy discography that includes great moments like 1980’s John Deere Tractor, whose title cut became a classic that was later covered by The Judds. Last year’s 40, the CD that cleaned up at the IBMA awards, is a guest star-packed look back at his lengthy career, with new versions of some of his best known songs. After all this time, he’s bigger than ever.

“Maybe it took longer to catch on because it was different,” he said of his current high profile. “I don’t have the normal sound that other people do. And that’s what you’ve got to have, really---something different. I can remember a lot of music that I heard growing up, some of the older country singers and some bluegrass singers. And some of the people who weren’t country or bluegrass---I even liked some of the big band sounds.”

He took a couple of months off this winter, and the Chrysler Museum show will be his fourth concert in what shapes up as a full year on the road.

“I don’t think I’ve been in the Norfolk area in a long time,” he said. “It’s good country. I’m glad to have a chance to come out.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.