When Larry Sparks’ name was called at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards show in 2004 as Male Vocalist of the Year, the surprised look on his face was as real as rain. After all, Sparks had been in the business for almost 40 years at that time, yet had won little in the way of honors. But, the thunderous ovation given by the crowd as he approached the podium that night let him know that his musical legacy had not been overlooked.
“I noticed the hand applause, and I knew right then that I had a lot of fans out there at the IBMA because if the rafters could have fell, they would have fell,” says Sparks. “Those people were my fans and appreciated what I have done for this music, the years I’ve put into it, and they’ve noticed it and I appreciate them being there with me.” Then, one year later, Sparks collaborated with an all-star cast of guest musicians on the Rebel Records album 40 which celebrated his four-decade career. That project netted him his second straight IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year award as well as the 2005 Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year nods as well. In October of 2015, Sparks’ legendary career was immortalized forever when he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
Larry Sparks grew up as one of nine children in a family that migrated from their native Kentucky to southern Ohio looking for work. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing with the legendary Stanley Brothers. Then, when Carter Stanley passed away in 1966, Sparks found himself with the unenviable task of following a legend. He knew he couldn’t fill Carter’s shoes, literally.
“I wore Carter’s boots,” says Sparks. “I wore his boots after he passed away. He wore a size ten, and I wore a nine and a half, so I say I didn’t quite fill his boots. If you look on the Stanley Brothers Folk Concert album, one of the best albums they ever did in my opinion, you’ll see that there were brown boots with black toes on them. Those were the ones he had when he died. Ralph had them up under the front car seat and he let me wear them and play his guitar for about a year.”
As Sparks’ career progressed, he quickly established a style of his own. In 1969, he formed his own band, the Lonesome Ramblers. Since then, he has recorded and toured for over fifty years and has released 60 albums. Many of those albums have been on the Rebel Records label, from the award-winning 40 to The Coldest Part Of Winter, from the all-instrumental Lonesome Guitar to the gospel set Let Him Lead You. Sparks’ most enduring and legendary work on Rebel Records, however, may be John Deere Tractor. That album, and the title cut especially, has proved to be one of the all-time bluegrass classics. It is a mixture of a country-boy-gone-to-town tale and guitar work and vocals by Sparks that leave no doubt as to his stature in the genre.
Alison Krauss sums up Larry Sparks when she says, “Larry Sparks is bluegrass music’s Ray Charles; no one can touch him. He is an absolute original.”