Many musical performers get impatient with labels. Call one a singer/songwriter, or traditionalist, or a song stylist, and you can hear the impatience in their voice. James “Sparky” Rucker, doesn’t need to play the cross-genre game. He has one definition he uses. “I’m a folk musician,” he says firmly.
Sparky and Rhonda Rucker will appear on Friday, April 15, at 8:15 p.m., at the Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane in Princeton, as part of the Princeton Folk Music Society performance series.
The Ruckers’ music spans 150 years of American history — including blues, slave songs, Appalachian ballads, spirituals, folk tales, Civil War songs, and more. And on their most recent album, “One Earth,” they venture into original compositions as well, all mixed with Sparky’s bottleneck guitar and Rhonda’s harmonica, banjo, piano, and vocal harmonies. Their audiences get to hear new songs, like “Two Hearts in Trouble,” old songs like “Tom Dooley” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” done in a different way, and old favorites like “Amazing Grace” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
Playing in a church is no new experience for either of them. Sparky comes from a long line of preachers and church officers in his native Knoxville, Tennessee, and his wife, born Rhonda Hicks, grew up learning hymns and gospel songs (and occasionally playing the organ) in the Methodist church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Sparky says he’s had that nickname since he was six days old, and his wife adds, “His eyes sparkle, and his aunt gave him that nickname.”
“I started out being known as a blues singer,” says Sparky, “because that was what I picked up on first. I’ve been playing guitar since I was around 11 years old. I was mostly playing what is now classified as rhythm and blues. Then my involvement in the civil rights movement (since the 1950s) was what turned me on to traditional music: the old slave songs, the freedom songs. As I toured around I started meeting other older musicians who were also involved, people like the Rev. Pearly Brown, who was a blind street singer from Americus, Georgia. He was the one who turned me on to the slide guitar, bottleneck style.
“And there was an old blues man from New Orleans named Babe Stovall, who had gotten his start as a medicine show and minstrel performer. These guys took me under their wings. Rhonda calls it my old man fix, but I really do like being around older people; I love sitting and talking to them and letting them tell me about the old days. As a result, I started to learn the stories behind the songs, learning old folk tales. I’m a vociferous reader, and Rhonda’s become that way too. The more I read, the more I want to know. When we travel and learn something about a local area, I try to incorporate that into some of our stories.”
In addition to his civil rights work, Sparky has been a schoolteacher and has worked to win benefits for the white Southern Appalachia coal miners. He has also written on the great migrations of African-Americans to the west, following the Civil War, and to the north, and how these movements affected black music.
“African-American music is true American folk music, because it did not come from somewhere else,” he says. “It was created here, of necessity because of the language change, and religion change. A lot of Western Africans were Muslim. The slaves were forbidden to use their African languages and music, so they had to make up a whole new culture. When they became Christians, they were left alone in their churches — and that was where a lot of the slave revolts started.”
He has also served on the board of the folk magazine Sing Out!, and with organizations that emphasize story-telling and the preservation of folk culture. Sparky has done extensive research into the stories behind the songs and can tell you who the real Stagger Lee was and how the tradition of the trickster, exemplified by the likes of Br’er Rabbit in slave folklore, made its way to America. “The trickster is in every culture, but he or she takes on a more prominent role (in oppressed people) because he is the person you can look to when you’re saying, ‘You know, I have to put up with this, but Br’er Rabbit wouldn’t, or High John the Conqueror wouldn’t.’ As you look through various cultures, the trickster is always there, and as I like to point out, the purpose of the trickster is to throw in a measure of chaos. Because without chaos we tend to go in a straight line and do things the same way over and over, and chaos makes us think on our feet.”
Rhonda took a different route into performing professionally. She had taken piano lessons and voice lessons as a child, and had always had an interest in roots music. “When I was in graduate school at the University of Kentucky, I was trying to learn to play bottleneck, and I saw in the paper that Sparky was coming to town. I went up to him and asked him how to play bottleneck, and that’s how we met.”
Doctors run in her family, and Rhonda got her medical degree. She practiced internal medicine for five years in Tennessee before hitting the road full time with Sparky. “Well, I didn’t like it,” she says flatly. “I miss a lot of the patients. I miss the real old ladies who would come in. I enjoyed that part. But the insurance companies run the doctors now.”
“One Earth” showcases both Ruckers’ writing talents, particularly Rhonda’s. Her passion for ecological issues is in evidence in the wistful title song, and she also takes up other causes. Is this a mid-career change? “I started trying writing songs about 20 years ago, but they weren’t particularly good,” she says. “Over the years of performing traditional music, it’s helped me write better songs. Maybe five or six years ago, I started writing again. I also had my plate kind of full for several years when we were traveling with our son and home-schooling him. So my attentions were diverted elsewhere for awhile. But about five years ago, things kind of clicked, and I was able to get some things that were performable. Sparky will putter along and write something and then go on and not write, and then write for awhile, and he’s done that for the last 40 years.”
“If there was something that needed to be said, and I couldn’t find an old song, then I would write one,” says Sparky. A great example of that is “Silas McGee,” the poignant story of a black teammate of Gerald Ford’s from high school who was invited to the White House. The song appears on “One Earth” but Sparky actually wrote it years earlier.
With such a huge repertoire to choose from, how do they decide on their performance material? “Well, our latest release is all originals,” says Rhonda, “so we usually do three or four of those. And then a hefty number of traditional things as well. It’s a mixture — some blues songs, some slave songs, maybe a Civil War song.”
“There is no typical concert,” adds Sparky. “We decide that day what we are going to do. And quite often, it will link into something that’s going on the world. Say, for instance, if there is still a lot in the news about what’s going on in Wisconsin, we might try to talk about some union things. So you never know.”
Over the course of 40 years of performing, Sparky and Rhonda have appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as well as on NPR’s On Point, Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Morning Edition. They have sung around the world and recorded eight albums together. Sparky also has six solo albums. One album, “Treasures & Tears,” was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording, and the couple appeared on the Grammy-nominated anthology “Singing Through The Hard Times.” In addition, Sparky has won many awards for storytelling, as a musicologist and for his work in the civil rights movement.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, it’s not surprising that Sparky and Rhonda are gathering bookings centered on the sesquicentennial. In addition to their vast store of spirituals and slave songs, the Ruckers have a CD titled “The Blue & Gray in Black & White,” which includes such Civil War standards as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Lorena,” “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” “O I’m a Good Old Rebel,” and “Dixie.”
“Dixie”? “I’m a Good Old Rebel”? “Well, you’ve got be fair,” says Sparky. “I’ve got Confederate ancestry in my life. Rhonda does, and our son does. We want to tell the whole story.”
As Pete Seeger once said, “Sparky Rucker is unique. He will make you glad to be alive and struggling.”
Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Friday, April 15, 8:15 p.m. $20. 609-799-0944 or www.princetonfolk.org.
Remaining concerts in the series include Hot Soup on Friday, May 20, and Jenny Avila on Saturday, May 21.