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Larry Sparks

New Moon Over My Shoulder – 2019 (Rebel)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks was still a teenager when Ralph Stanley chose him to replace his brother Carter Stanley as guitarist and lead singer in the Clinch Mountain Boys in the wake of Carter's passing in December 1966. As the ensuing decades would amply demonstrate, Sparks was to become much more than the answer to a bluegrass trivia question. His bluesy vocals and guitar work gained him a lot of fans. After a couple of years, he left to form his own band, and this new release - his first of new music in five years, and now back with his longtime label, Rebel - celebrates a half-century of touring with his Lonesome Ramblers. Along the way, he picked up a couple of IBMA nods as Male Vocalist of the Year as well as a Best Album award. Like the Stanleys, he still prefers the "old sounds" and seems to have the knack of sounding better the older he gets.

Sparks' penchant for putting the "blue" in bluegrass is on full display here, and he continues to excel at drawing material from a wide variety of sources (Roy Acuff, Jimmie Davis and longtime favorite Gary Ferguson, to name a few) covering many moods and tempos. The wistful title track, "There's A New Moon Over My Shoulder," was a wartime hit for Tex Ritter that was still popular during Sparks' boyhood years in Ohio, while "Henry Hill" (one of two Ferguson tunes) is a classic of the "hard times" genre. Sparks is perhaps at his best, though, on the closer, the traditional "Green Pastures In The Sky." A man of abiding faith, it's on these classic gospel-tinged tunes that his comfortable, craggy baritone conveys the most emotion and conviction.

He's hinted at times over the years that he thinks about retirement, and his recent releases have tended to be "anniversary" celebrations of various milestones in his career, but Sparks continues to prove he's one of the most reliable talents in the history of the bluegrass genre, and we wouldn't mind it if he booked some more studio time.