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Contemporary bluegrass giant Larry Sparks has rarely sounded more engaged with his material than on the evocative The Coldest Part of Winter. His only contribution as a songwriter is a touching, harmony-rich gospel number, "Lord, Show Me the Way," but he's clearly found common emotional ground with ten other original songs and a cover of the old barn burner "Soldier's Joy." He's accompanied by Lonesome Ramblers mainstays Scott Napier on mandolin and John McMurray on banjo, who punctuate the songs with imaginative solos, and by young fiddle phenom Mike Cleveland, late of Rhonda Vincent's the Rage, who joins in as a special guest throughout, sounding nothing less than stunning on his blistering set-to with Napier and his exuberant picking and bowing on "Soldier's Joy." Up-tempo ensemble workouts such as "Leavin' Me" and Napier's bouncy mandolin workout, "Parkway Blues," are exciting showcases for the instrumental maestros in the band, but it's Sparks' singing that makes the album whole. Effective in any guise, he can deliver a deep country blues on the breakup song "Winter in Miami" or summon touching memories of the home and ethos of yesteryear on the reflective "This Old Road" and the buoyant, guitar-driven ballad "You Ain't Lived." Sparks also assumes a character with chilling effectiveness, which he does most dramatically on the terse ballad "He Walked All the Way Home," which recounts a returning Civil War soldier's somber meditations on a war-scarred world, with Cleveland's fiddle playing mournfully beneath Sparks' deliberate excavation of inner turmoil. It's a powerful moment, rich in the humanity that animates the album's intriguing landscape.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You can always count on guitarist and singer Larry Sparks and his band to bring us some of the best traditionally-grounded bluegrass on the market today. Larry's been playing and singing bluegrass for over five decades. He played with the Stanley Brothers from 1963 until Carter died in 1966. Then he was Ralph's lead singer from 1967 until 1969 when he formed his own band. This project features four young, talented sidekicks: Josh McMurray (banjo), Scott Napier (mandolin), Matthew Madden (bass), and special guest Michael Cleveland (fiddle). Napier and McMurray do a fine job singing the harmonies to Sparks' pleasant baritone leads. With the exception of the traditional "Soldier's Joy" that is a showcase for Cleveland, the songs are fresh, new material written primarily by Marshal Warwick or David Norris. Marvin Harlow, Scott Napier and Larry Sparks also contribute one song apiece. I was quite impressed with Warwick's songwriting skill, and five of his songs are offered among the album's first seven tracks. The supercharged "Leavin' Me" opens the album in the same lonesome way that Sparks kicks off many of his live shows. Another penned by Warwick, "You Ain't Lived," is a nostalgic look at the joys of country life. "Winter in Miami" has a country bounce, provides the inspiration for the album's title, and tells us that "the coldest part of winter is good-bye." Old love letters, crickets chirping, the moon shining, the smell of honeysuckle, and stars twinkling recall the simple things of love in "Let's Turn Back the Clock." Bill Monroe would have been proud of Napier's instrumental composition, "Parkway Blues." Sparks' flatpicking kicks off "This Old Road," a David Norris song of a rambler returning home. Norris' "He Walked All the Way Home" is a ballad of a Civil War soldier returning home to start his life again, and Norris' "Our Old Home" has a familiar bluegrass theme with its testament to the hard work of a farming family and encroaching development. The album closes with a Sparks' original, "Lord, Show Me The Way," a drifter's plea for direction to the beautiful home "somewhere beyond the sky." This self-penned composition has the potential for considerable airplay and placement on the bluegrass gospel charts. Sparks and his band have another winner with this album that also showcases two-time IBMA fiddler of the year Cleveland, as well as some fine new bluegrass songs that convey some very traditional messages. (Joe Ross, staff writer, Bluegrass Now)