Personnel: Larry Sparks (vocals, baritone, guitar, acoustic bass); Tyler Mullins (banjo); Carl Berggren (mandolin); Ron Stewart (fiddle).
Recording information: Jordan Recording Studio, Taylor Mill, KY.
Photographer: Hugh Chambers.
Larry Sparks has been in the bluegrass business for nearly a half-a-century now, dating back to 1963 when he was hired by Carter and Ralph Stanley to play lead guitar in the Clinch Mountain Boys when he was only 16 years old. Sparks took over lead vocals in the band following Carter's death three years later in 1966, and by the time he formed his own Lonesome Ramblers band in 1970, he was already a seasoned performer on the bluegrass circuit, and he's been steady at it ever since, moving bright, young players in and out of his band while anchoring everything with his bluesy guitar playing and his lonesome yet vibrant and joyous vocal style. His new album, Almost Home (the title is drawn from the old bluegrass joke that every song is either about leaving home or trying to get back there), is Sparks doing what he's always done, pouring heart, soul, and energy into a bluegrass sound that doesn't try to break new ground but tends the roots of the thing with impressive drive and skill; one could call it new traditionalism except it isn't new at all, but it is what Sparks broke in doing with the Stanley Brothers in the first place. Almost Home is the perfect Sparks' release, with song after song showing focus and presence, and each one crackling with passionate energy. The title track sounds like it could have exploded out of any time period in the last 50 years, while "Lines on the Highway" makes for the perfect bluegrass road song. One of the highlights here is the haunting, modal instrumental "Back Road," a Sparks' original that he initially wrote on banjo, as well as the set closer, "Somebody Touched Me," which finds Sparks tackling bluegrass-gospel with fervor and poise. He may have a half-a-century of playing and singing behind him, but Sparks is still only 64 years old, and he's as vibrant a performer as ever, and with Almost Home, he's released one of his best albums: it races and crackles and embraces the past in the present like bluegrass was originally designed to do. ~ Steve Leggett