Wayne Bledsoe: Sparky and Rhonda Rucker 'Let Freedom Ring' on new album

 Sparky and Rhonda Rucker will perform at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, at Fourth United Presbyterian, 1323 N. Broadway.

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker will perform at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, at Fourth United Presbyterian, 1323 N. Broadway.

It was probably inevitable that Sparky and Rhonda Rucker would record an album like "Let Freedom Ring."

The couple have been touring and recording folk music for most of their 24 years of marriage. Before that, Sparky was a solo performer and activist. A photo in the booklet for the album shows Sparky (in stylish Afro and Black Panther button) in a University of Tennessee campus demonstration in 1967.

"Rhonda says I'm like the Forrest Gump of folk," says Sparky with a smile.

Sitting with Sparky and Rhonda at Panera Bread on Kingston Pike, it's easy to understand why Rhonda would say that.

"I went to see a concert and heard about a black writers' conference and met Nikki Giovanni, who I'd actually known when we were kids. Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes ..."

He hung out at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) to hear much and ended up learning blues and how to play bottleneck guitar from the Rev. Pearlie Brown and Babe Stovall.

When Stokely Carmichael came to Knoxville to speak, Sparky was enlisted to be a bodyguard because H. Rap Brown had the flu.

"His whole life has been serendipity," says Rhonda.

I first encounterd Sparky at the Laurel Theater when I was a teenager in 1975, by which time he was a well-known folk performer. That night featured Guy and Candie Carawan (the Highlander Folk School educators/performers who inspired Sparky to become a folk performer and to whom the new album is dedicated) and a few other artists. Sparky sang several folk and blues numbers, but it was his rendition of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that absolutely knocked me out.

By then, he had worked as a teacher for a while and it was obvious his sense of American history included all Americans.

He and Rhonda (who he married 24 years ago) decided to record "Let Freedom Ring" to be a companion-piece to the couple's educational programs on the Civil Rights movement.

"After the program, teachers would say 'We'd like a CD of the show you did.' We'd have to say, 'Well, there's one on this CD and one on that CD ...'"

The new album brings together songs from older albums before Rhonda was multi-instrumentalist, and sometimes from before the two were even a couple. The re-recordings are a better representation of the couple's talents now. And, Rhonda who has blossomed over the past two decades as a songwriter has some new songs on the set.

Sparky called up Candie Carawan and invited Candie and Guy to sing on the song "We Shall Overcome." Candie suggested mutual old friend Nancy Brennan Strange might be a good addition as well. When the song was recorded it included the Carawans (including son Evan), Strange, Dan Gammon and George Reynolds all singing along.

"It ended up being a real magical time," says Sparky.

In addition to contributions of friends in the recording, the album cover art was conceived and painted by the couple's son, James.

And the Ruckers continue to expand.

Rhonda will soon have a children's book, "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet," published and will be featured on an upcoming album of female harmonica players. Sparky is featured in the documentary "Before the Memories Fade: Voices From the Civil Rights Movement."

Don't expect them to slow down anytime soon.

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