Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard K. Skelly was prepared for the March 3,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Tour with Sparky & Rhonda

Given that they spent so much time in college, it stands to reason

that when you go to see Sparky and Rhonda Rucker in concert, you’re

going to learn something.

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter James "Sparky" Rucker began his

recording career in the early 1970s, after spending several years as a

teacher. In 1986 he met Rhonda, now his wife, at a festival in

Kentucky. The two were married in 1988 in Rucker’s native Knoxville,

Tennessee. Sparky plays guitar, banjo and harmonica, and Rhonda plays

guitar, keyboards and harmonica at their live shows. Both contribute

vocals, as they will demonstrate Saturday, March 6, at the Grounds for

Sculpture.

On the road doing a blizzard of school assemblies in Florida –

February is Black History Month, after all – the inter-racial couple

was reached in a hotel room in Jacksonville. Since the late 1980s

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker have spent upwards of 100 nights a year on

the road, performing, while home-schooling their son, Jamey, who will

turn 12 this weekend. The trio have crisscrossed Europe, Canada, and

the U.S. together, playing a mix of school assemblies, evening coffee

house shows, and folk and blues festivals.

When Rhonda Rucker met her husband-to-be she was in medical school at

the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She graduated in 1987 and

spent five years practicing internal medicine before the lure of

playing blues, work songs, old gospel tunes, and Civil War songs, on

the road with Sparky, proved too great to resist.

"I’ve played piano since I was real small, as a four-year-old," she

explains, "and I was teaching myself guitar and getting interested in

blues. I asked Sparky at a festival if he would show me some

bottleneck blues [slide] guitar. I had already seen him at a festival

in Louisville, Kentucky," she recalls.

"That’s how we met. He showed me some of that slide stuff. But if you

ask him now, he’ll tell you he’s not going to teach me everything,

’cause if he teaches me everything, I’ll leave him," she says,

laughing.

At first at their live performances, Rhonda accompanied Rucker by

singing back up and playing a little harmonica.

"I didn’t even start playing blues-style harmonica until 1989. At

first I used books and played along with old Sonny Terry recordings. I

learned some of his techniques that way," she explains.

Eventually, she worked out a style that fitted in with what Sparky was

doing. The couple had their son and moved back to Maryville,

Tennessee, where she practiced medicine for five years.

"During that time, I would perform with him occasionally," she says,

"but just locally or regionally. After five years or practicing

medicine, I was really missing performing and being on the road, and

by that point our child was of school age. For us, that meant home

schooling."

How did a white woman from Louisville, Kentucky, get interested in the

blues?

"I have always liked any kind of music I thought was good," Rhonda

says, "even now, I like a mixture of different kinds of music. I

listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll growing up. I went through a period

listening to a lot of country and western. I was pretty much a child

of Bob Dylan’s music, and I gradually found the people he was

influenced by," she says, noting she learned about Jesse Fuller and

Robert Johnson through Dylan’s music.

Sparky Rucker is the son of a policeman father and housewife mother

who began attending the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1964.

After changing his major from zoology to fine arts painting to art

education, he finally graduated in 1971, with nearly 300 credit hours.

"Had I known I could have used those hours to get a master’s degree, I

probably would have," he recalls, "but you don’t know these things at

the time. And I was too busy changing the world anyway."

He began playing guitar in 1957 at age 11. He sang and played rhythm

guitar in a procession of soul and rock ‘n’ roll bands through high

school. He was one of the first of a crew of African-Americans to

attend the previously segregated University of Tennessee.

"My college roommates told me about Bob Dylan," Rucker explains. As a

teenager, he knew nothing about this Jewish white folk singer who had

carved a niche for himself by singing traditional blues and composing

a wealth of thought-provoking originals.

"At my school, there was a big contingent of beatniks who became

hippies," Rucker relates, including many racially enlightened white

kids from New York and New Jersey.

"So my friends bought me a ticket to see Dylan. This was 1966. The

first set was acoustic and the second set was electric, with the

Butterfield Blues Band. I was just blown away. I had never seen that

kind of stuff from white folks."

Even now, Rucker acknowledges, "Bob Dylan has tentacles that reach out

everywhere. The scope of his influence is very wide-ranging."

When Rucker was at the University of Tennessee in the 1960s, the civil

rights, student rights, and anti-war movements all took shape. Student

rights?

"Yes, the student rights movement was all about making colleges more

relevant," he explains, "to stop treating students like kids, to treat

them more like adults. There were always lots of rallies going on

around college campuses, so it was a fun time to be in college."

He says his generation went from Richie Cunnningham [of the TV show,

"Happy Days,"] to Stokely Carmichael, the then-radical

African-American civil rights activist. Rucker recalls posing as a

bodyguard for Carmichael when he came to speak at a nearby all-black

college in Knoxville, and going to hear him speak on several other

occasions through his seven-year college career.

"Listening to him, that was the first time anybody in our part of the

world had heard the phrase ‘black power!’ He was an electrifying

person and a great speaker," he recalls.

After graduating in 1971, Rucker spent some time as a schoolteacher in

Knoxville, but he yearned to do more performing. He led a racially

mixed band in college and shortly afterwards, but he also began

performing, alone and acoustic, at coffee houses, an extension of his

work at civil rights and student rights rallies.

In college "there were these tours that happened, run by the Southern

Folk Cultural Revival Project," he explains, noting that Bernice

Reagon [of the Freedom Singers] and Pete and Mike Seeger were all

heavily involved in the project.

"I first met Bernice when they were playing at my college. She was one

of those people, along with Mike Seeger, Hedy West, Guy Carawan, and

others, these were people I later ended up touring with," he recalls.

The late Alabama blues singer Johnny Shines, a contemporary of

legendary blues singer Robert Johnson, was also on the tour. Rucker

learned a lot about the blues and Robert Johnson from Shines.

"Some of those old-timey blues people back then, when they’d find a

younger black person that was interested in learning their music, they

would just latch on to you like you would want to latch on to them."

After a short stint in public school teaching, Rucker spent the next

15 years putting on a festival in Virginia that brought white and

black folk singing traditions together.

"I was inviting people like Odetta and Louisiana Red to this thing,"

he recalls, and that led to further contacts in the folk festival

world. Rucker had the chance to open a show for folksinger Phil Ochs

at the University of Tennessee in 1972, but he says his first big

break was when he began performing at coffee houses and festivals

around the northeast in the mid-1970s.

He performed at the prestigious Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1976 and

1977, he recalls, and also recorded for blues singer Victoria Spivey’s

Spivey Records in Brooklyn in the ’70s. Word of Rucker’s prowess on

guitar, harmonica and as a vocalist spread to Cafe Lena in New York

State and around Philadelphia and New York City coffee houses.

Despite the fact that they have never had anything resembling a major

label record deal or even halfway decent distribution of their

recordings, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker have recorded "Midnight

Memories," "The Blue & Gray in Black & White," "Treasures and Tears,"

and "Eventide: Songs of Celebration," in the last dozen years for a

variety of small record labels.

With the advent of the Internet, their job has gotten somewhat easier,

they say. They now stay in touch with hundreds of school

administrators, coffee house, and booking agents via E-mail. The

couple has a website, www.sparkyandrhonda.com, and Rucker admits,

"we’ve gotten a good deal of work in recent years by people finding us

on the Internet by accident. By going to our website and seeing what

our tour schedule looks like, we’ve also been able to get these little

fill-in gigs along the way. Because, until recently, I had cut back on

my touring, I was going out perhaps seven days a month."

"Now, we’re out on the road about 10 months of the year, I’d say it’s

about 200 shows a year, when you include the two or three school shows

a day that we also do," he relates. Rucker says the school

performances tend to pay much better than the evening coffee house

shows, but the pair perform a mix of both. In summer months, they

perform at blues and folk festivals as well.

"You can’t make a living just doing coffee house gigs," Rucker says,

"and ultimately, the school shows are important because you’re making

new folk music fans and new blues fans."

In performance, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker take time to explain the

historical background of the tunes they’re about to perform. Their

repertoire includes old blues, work songs, traditional folk songs and

Civil War songs.

"We try to educate our audiences as well as entertain them," Rucker

explains, adding, "I’m as much a storyteller as I am a singer. We try

to run the gamut."

-Richard J. Skelly

Sparky & Rhonda Rucker, Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road,

609-689-1089. By reservation, $10; $5 children. Saturday, March 6, 3

p.m.


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