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Reviews: Charlie Sizemore, Heartache Looking For a Home; and Larry Sparks, Almost Home

Charlie Sizemore
Heartache Looking For a Home
[Rounder (2011)]

Larry Sparks
Almost Home
[Rounder (2011)]

Charlie Sizemore has had one of the more unusual career paths in contemporary bluegrass. He joined the ranks of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys at age 17, replacing future country star Keith Whitley, and remained a Clinch Mountain Boy for the next 9½ years. He left for college (University of Kentucky), earned a law degree (Middle Tennessee State University), and passed the bar exam in both states while keeping his own bluegrass band active. In 1998, he took a 9-year sabbatical from music for career and family until restlessness pulled him back into the game in 2007.

Heartache Looking For a Home is Sizemore’s second outing since his return, and, instrumentally, is a solid, no-nonsense trad affair. Vocals are what probably distinguish Sizemore the most—he’s not the high lonesome, yelping crooner like so many of his contemporaries. Instead he sings in a slightly restrained country-esque voice reminiscent of 1980s country more so than today’s new hat variety. The song selection follows accordingly with the title song, Tom T. Hall’s “Pay No Attention to Alice,” John Conlee’s 1982 hit “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” and the Alan Jackson’s rarity “Walking The Floor Over Me.” Even though he doesn’t have the pipes to blow the doors off, Sizemore sings with enough sincerity and conviction to make his messages and story lines believable as if they were personal encounters. But don’t be fooled by Sizemore’s stoic demeanor, there’s a surprising sense of humor in store with “No Lawyers in Heaven” and “Ashley Judd,” where he professes his secret infatuation for the unobtainable starlet.

Even though Sizemore has a certain twist to his music, he never forgets where he came from. “Red Wicked Wine,” a song he once recorded as a Clinch Mountain Boy that was never released, features Sizemore dueting with the legendary, whispy-voiced Stanley, a gracious gesture on Sizemore’s part.

Like his younger contemporary Charlie Sizemore (14 years his junior), Larry Sparks also joined Ralph Stanley’s ranks as a teenager on lead guitar. When Ralph’s brother Carter died in 1966, Sparks was tapped to sing lead and did so until 1970, when he struck out on his own. In the last decade, Sparks’ recorded output has continued to excel—much more congruously than his 90s output—with Almost Home being no exception. Like Sizemore, he delivers pure, unadulterated traditional bluegrass and prefers to interpret a fine song rather than write one. But unlike Sizemore’ country-esque vocals, Sparks’ is more of the high lonesome variety, making him as core bluegrass as they come.

These delightful dozen songs are a purist’s delight, with two songs dealing with leaving home and returning (“Almost Home,” “Back Road”), two motherly devotions (“Momma’s Apron Strings,” “Momma”), and an overall theme of nostalgia (“There’s More That Holds The Picture”). Although “Bring ‘Em Back” references Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, and the Grand Ole Opry, it’s really about the way life in general used to be.

But what will be appealing to the general listener is how Sparks sequences material so every track differs texturally from the last. A swing song, “Blue Mountain Melody” leads into the driving “Lines on the Highway,” which gives way to “Momma’s Apron Strings,” the south-of-the-border motif of “Gunfighter’s Revenge” and the brisk instrumental “Back Road.” While there are no surprises or new territory conquered here, it’s nice to know that when you want the real thing, it’s still available from a reliable source.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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