Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, Crossroads
7 p.m. Feb. 4 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane, Clay City. $15. (606) 663-9008. Kyfriends.com.
'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Janie Fricke with The Roys, Matt Flinner Trio
7 p.m. Feb. 6 at The Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. $10. (859) 252-8888. Woodsongs.com.
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Usually when there is this much string music available in a single weekend, you're sitting in the summer shade during bluegrass festival season.
Yet we have barely passed Groundhog Day, and we have at our finger-picking tips a wealth of world-class bluegrass during the next few days.
We start in Clay City on Saturday, with the annual wintertime visit by Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers at the ultra-inviting Meadowgreen Park Music Hall.
Sparks is one of the great bluegrass traditionalists. He has been a journeyman of the music for nearly 50 years. With family roots in Jackson County, Sparks, an Ohio native, introduced himself to bluegrass audiences in a big way in the mid-'60s, when he was a guitarist and vocalist in one of Ralph Stanley's first versions of the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Since 1969, Sparks has been the not-so- lonesome chieftain of his Lonesome Ramblers band, which today features fiddler Mike Feagan, mandolinist Jackie Kincaid, banjoist Tyler Mullins and bassist D Sparks. Through the years, he has remained a critical and commercial hit within bluegrass circles, twice winning the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards' male vocalist of the year (in 2004 and 2005) and album of the year (in 2005 for his recording 40). Sparks' most recent album is Almost Home.
Our next stop is the weekly taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at The Kentucky Theatre. Monday's bill features Janie Fricke, two-time Country Music Association female vocalist of the year (in 1982 and 1983). Thanks to the hits It Ain't Easy Bein' Easy and Your Heart's Not in It, she played Rupp Arena several times during the early '80s, usually as an opening act for country-pop juggernaut Alabama.
But Fricke has spent much of the past decade taking a detour into bluegrass. Her new album Country Side of Bluegrass personalizes the journey, with string-music updates of her '80s material. The standout track, though, is Fricke's ghostly take on the great J.D. Souther classic Faithless Love.
Fricke will be backed for the WoodSongs show by The Roys, the brother-sister duo touring behind its own contemporary bluegrass recording, Lonesome Whistle.
But the most recommended act of this entire pack is the Matt Flinner Trio, which completes Monday's WoodSongs bill. The extraordinary string-music ensemble builds on the jazz and classically accented acoustic music introduced decades ago by groundbreaking newgrass stylists David Grisman and Tony Rice and reintroduced by way of the recent all-star collaboration album The Goat Rodeo Sessions, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile.
Mandolinist Flinner's new album, Winter Harvest, with guitarist Ross Martin and drummer and bassist Eric Thorin, maintains a melodic lightness that shifts from the Rice-flavored Raji's Romp to the more darkly playful Wheels to the bluesy newgrass cast of Slapping Is Encouraged (a showpiece for Thorin) to the intricate string lyricism of Bucolic Futurism, which steers into Pat Metheny-flavored fusion during its more expansive passages.
As if all these string sounds weren't enough, start making plans for next weekend. Bluegrass festival favorite Blue Highway takes to the rock-club circuit with a visit to Cosmic Charlie's on Feb. 10. We will check in with Highway-man Rob Ickes to preview that performance in next Friday's Weekender.