The sixth annual Blowing Rock Music Festival will take place at the well-known tourist attraction known as The Blowing Rock this Saturday, Sept. 14. Hosted by the Harris Brothers band, this year’s event will be a special one as the headliner will be the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Famer Larry Sparks and his Lonesome Ramblers.
The Blowing Rock Music Festival begins at noon and lasts until sunset, and it will feature a bill that includes the Harris Brothers, guitar legend Wayne Henderson, Soul Benefactor, the Jeff Little Trio, Shelby Rae Moore, The Neighbors, Charlie Carpenter, Cecil Palmer and Gloria Coffey, Mitch and Masten and more.
It has been a long time since the great Larry Sparks has performed in the High Country. Currently, Sparks is celebrating the 50th anniversary of leading his own band with the new album, “New Moon Over My Shoulder,” recorded on the Rebel Records label. Considered one of the last traditional bluegrass legends, Sparks’ down-to-earth singing and guitar playing is as powerful as ever, which is evident on this new recording.
Before starting his own band in 1969, Sparks joined the legendary group The Stanley Brothers featuring Ralph and Carter Stanley. Sparks was only 16 years old when he was brought into the fold. Unfortunately, however, the great Carter Stanley died from liver failure at 41 years of age in 1966, soon after Sparks’ arrival in the band. Carter’s brother Ralph would go on to live to the ripe old age of 89 years of age, dying in 2016.
The Stanley Brothers were first-generation bluegrass musicians who were essential to the development of the genre. When the International Bluegrass Music Association was formed, the Stanley Brothers were the second to be inducted into that organization’s Hall of Fame following the first-year’s inductees Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.
This explains the pressure that was placed on Larry Sparks when he had to step up into Carter Stanley’s lead singer position while just a teenager. But, it taught him a lot about the music business, and that experience has made him a living link to those great artists that are no longer with us.
“I wore Carter’s boots,” said Sparks, from his home in southern Indiana. “I wore his boots after he passed away. He wore a size 10, and I wore a size 9 1/2, 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 was brown boots with black toes on them. That’s 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.”
Sparks’ new album, “New Moon Over My Shoulder,” with its hit single “Take Me back To West Virginia,” marks his 17th album for the acclaimed Rebel Records label. The first album that Sparks’ recorded for the legacy label was 1979’s, “John Deere Tractor.” Like the new single, “John Deere Tractor” contained lyrics that folks here in the Western North Carolina mountains can relate to, as in leaving your beautiful home region behind to go to the big city to work in tall buildings.
Very few artists have the gravitas to pull off a song like that and make it feel and sound authentic, yet Sparks still does it like few others. Though in his 70s now, Sparks has recorded and released many wonderful albums such as “New Moon Over My Shoulder.” Yet “John Deere Tractor” may still be his biggest cut forty years later.
“You’ve got to take those words and really treat them right,” said Sparks. “Grab those words and make them come to life. Make it real. That’s what I try to do.”
Sparks still looks back and remembers those mentors that he knew and worked with before they left him behind on this earth.
“As far as being a player and a singer in the business that always held to traditional bluegrass and never strayed from it; I could be the only one left,” said Sparks. “When you think of lead singers in the same category as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Jimmy Martin, all of these people, they had their own way of doing things. They were singers and entertainers. They weren’t just players. They were singers. They were leaders. They were band leaders. And, that is what I became: a band leader for this music. I’ve tried to hold it up and take care of it.”
Time flies and all of a sudden, as the first generation of bluegrass greats continues to leave us, Larry Sparks is now an elder of the bluegrass congregation.
“Now, I am in the class that these men were in,” said Sparks. “They all had their thing going on, but they are not with us anymore. I’m a singer and player like they were, but we all had our different ways of doing it, as in our styles, and that is a good thing. I never really put my sights on becoming an elder statesman for the music. But I thought back then, ‘I want to stay in this music and put my best into it, and I want to do what Monroe and the Stanley Brothers did, and I want to be here and be a part of it.’ And now, here I am. I am glad that my heart and my thoughts are still with bluegrass music, and I’ll be doing it as long as I can go.”