Minton Sparks on Universal Storytelling, Pulling From Family's Tales

 Gina Binkley

How does one go about defining the work of Minton Sparks?

If one can – it's not typically something that can be done very easy. Some might call her a musician. They would be right. Some might call her a lyricist, a poet, perhaps. Again, the definition would be right on. No matter what you might want to call her, the spoken word artist certainly strikes a chord in her audience. Enough so to prompt the legendary singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman's proclamation, "I have seen Minton Sparks. And if she's not the ghost child of [Flannery O'Connor] and [Hank Williams], then cotton doesn't grow in a cotton field." 

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In describing herself, Sparks begins at the very core of her being. "I've been a lifelong poet. I've always been trying to publish in literary journals for years and years. I was able to do that and had some luck with that. Finally, I realized that even if you get in a pretty good journal, nobody hears it. I was with my guitar teacher one day and we talked about putting my guitar out on CD. I also had a lot of good friends in the music business that helped shape that. Rob Jackson, who was my first guitar teacher, was so helpful in me thinking about some kind of conversation between poetry and music instead of simply publishing poems."

Where does she get her inspiration for most of her stories? She quickly gives credit where it is due, saying "Most of what I write is based on my family. They are true stories about them. That has been an endless treasure trove. Going to a family event is like a tax write-off, so that has been great," she jokes. Carrying the family theme a bit deeper, she tells Billboard it was her grandmother that actually served as the impetus for her stage name.

 "She was a Minton and she married a Sparks. She named me Minton when I was little. When I started writing, I did so under that name." Knowing that they serve as the influence for a lot of Sparks' output, is there a certain degree of restraint that her family uses around her about their respective lives? According to her, not in the least.

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"With my family, it's always been the opposite. They will call me and say 'Hey, I've got something that I think you need to write about.' I played my first record for my grandmother before I put it out and she started saying 'You left out this and you left out that.' I've never experienced someone being mad as much as they always call up with something new." 

The latest musical offering from the native of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is last year's Gold Digger, which includes "Tennessee Prison For Women" that she says is her own personal story. She recalls, "I volunteered in a prison for a year and had family members there. For me, that piece is about getting to know someone who has been incarcerated and their story. Much of the time, the reason they got there is not because they are a bad person. I taught literacy in the prison and that story is about a woman that I taught there." 

It's stories like that that have made her a favorite of her audience, who continue to identify with her work in growing numbers -- regardless of whether the location is here or across the pond. "We were in Ireland a couple of years ago and we connected there as much as anywhere because sometimes the stories are so similar and universal. I think we have so many of the same experiences. The difficult times are also the ones that bind people. I think that one of the reasons people keep coming back to the shows is that it's an experience. You can't be there and not feel a lot." 

A few months ago, Sparks made her debut on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, which she says was a career moment. "We've been dreaming of playing there from the time we first started, but because we're in a genre-less pursuit, they are still trying to figure out how to use us there. But family stories seem to connect with everybody. The reception we got there was incredible and to get Bill Anderson to introduce us. I grew up listening to him and my father was a fan. I even think Jean Shepard yodeled right before we came on, so it was definitely an unbelievable night."