SHEILAH KAST, host:
It's hard to remember the last time a recording of storytelling set to music caught the public's ears. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" comes to mind, but that was decades ago. Minton Sparks' new CD, "Sin Sick," might signal a renaissance for this genre. Sparks is poet, storyteller and performance artist rolled into one, and her new recording offers tales tall and small, dark and whimsical, drawing on characters from her native Tennessee and the South.
(Soundbite of unidentified track from "Sin Sick")
Ms. MINTON SPARKS (Poet and Storyteller): The first time I laid eyes on Vicky Pickles' mamma, she was strutting to the snack bar. A two-piece leopard-print bathing suit, 10 push-ups, on the concrete beside the pool drew boys eyes like flies. Then she orders curly fries and a Coca-Cola.
KAST: Minton Sparks joins us from the studios of WPLN in Nashville.
Ms. SPARKS: Thank you.
KAST: How did you come up with this form of storytelling?
Ms. SPARKS: Well, it started with just being a poet for years and years and writing that way and trying to get my work published. Then I had a guitar teacher who offered to play music behind the pieces and we began to work together, and then we found out that over time it wasn't really even accompanying the poems. There was this conversation that happened between the music and the poems.
KAST: Now you brought along your guitar accompanist, John Jackson, and you're going to perform "Aunt Shine's Face-Lift." Let's listen.
(Soundbite of "Aunt Shine's Face-Lift")
Ms. SPARKS: Ever since she was a child, she took real pains with her looks. Shine saved the surgeon's scalpel and the sutures. They lie prostrate in her chewing gum drawer, reverent ropes for hog-tieing the hands of time. Aunt Shine's face-lift, still swollen, cost an arm and a leg. She crammed it on her credit card. Cleans office buildings at night to pay the doctor bills. Smoothing creases, drawing back blinds and vacuuming fuzz up off the floor, somehow she stitched together the payments.
I admit she looked downright decent at Big Mama's funeral. An injected stillness froze the muscles of her furrowed brow. And right now, back at the house, cousins gnaw on neck bones and shove shelly beans. Shine caught them fiddling with the grandfather clock, trying to trick us into eating early after the burial. They changed time in secret, just like those skin surgeons haggled over Big Mama's grown child's face. Big Mama lifted Shine's face as a child, whispered, `You are "Wow!" girl, and pretty as a picture.' Too bad we can't re-teach a girl her loveliness. Say what you will, the distance has been distorted--the distance between our families living and our families dead.
KAST: "Aunt Shine's Face-Lift," performed by Minton Sparks with guitarist John Jackson. Let's talk about the music a bit. There we heard the strains of "Beautiful Dreamer," but most of the music on the CD is original, either by John Jackson or your keyboardist, Steve Conn. How is the music developed?
Ms. SPARKS: Our process is mostly I'll have written a poem and take it to him and then we talk about the mood of the piece. Then I'll begin to read it and he plays what he's thinking about playing with it, and then we start the editing process.
KAST: So you're still writing when you start with the music. The words of the piece have not been locked in.
Ms. SPARKS: I'd say they're not locked in stone. They're pretty much--I mean, the story is there, the rhythm is there, the cadence that I'm thinking about. So it's not in its final, you know, what it comes out at the end, but it's close. I mean, the music impacts that.
(Soundbite of "Back of the Bus")
Ms. SPARKS: The yellow smelling school bus might as well have been a seedy motel room for all the bumping and grinding we got into. Away games on the pep bus--21 boys, 19 of us--let the good times roll, girls, and the ruffians drag.
Unidentified Man: Sparks, get your butt back on this bus!
Ms. SPARKS: ...Coach shouts as I swagger out.
KAST: One of the pieces on the CD, "Back of the Bus," has a real driving beat to it.
Ms. SPARKS: The "Back of the Bus"--I mean, anybody that's ever ridden the bus--the pep bus or the cheerleading bus or the basketball bus--there is sort of that beat there after the game. There's this thing you feel when you know what's up ahead, and what's up ahead can just be getting to sit by, you know, your boyfriend or girlfriend in the back of the bus. So I think that's where the beat came for that one.
(Soundbite of "Back of the Bus")
Ms. SPARKS: I catch eye with a million stars winking out of my window. Young love, there's no boundaries on the highway. For this second in time I sing, `I did it my way,' this moment on the back of this bus.
KAST: You have a very interesting resume. Worked as an intern for "Good Morning America," did promotions for WSM Radio in Nashville. You majored in psychology, got a master's degree in counseling from Vanderbilt, and you've described yourself as a soccer mom. Of all the things you've done, what has prepared you best for your work as a performer and a storyteller?
Ms. SPARKS: I think what has best prepared me is my work as a social worker. I worked for several years as a social worker, and basically what I found that I was doing was listening to people and really listening deeply to their stories. That listening process, I realized that's what I'd been doing my whole life. And that's what I was really pursuing as a social worker was to go out and hear more stories, and I was as interested in the story as anything, and I think there was a healing power to people being able to have a chance to sit and tell their stories, and I was the recorder of those stories.
(Soundbite of unidentified track from "Sin Sick")
Ms. SPARKS: They did it in the grade school infirmary, 'cause she kept the clinic twice a week. He's a Church of Christ deacon, president of the Ruritans. She's the VP of the DAR. A match made in heaven, except he's married and 30 years her senior. Now I lay me down to sleep with a married man I meet at the ice cream social. `The word "fool,"' Mama scolds, `is the devil's.'
Ms. SPARKS: And the thing that happens so much, every time after our show people come up and tell us their stories, always. I've gotten enough material for my next record just from the stories that people come up after the show and say, `Wait, I want to tell you my story.'
My favorite was an older man came up to me after a show one night and said, `I have to tell you this. When we were growing up, a tornado blew threw out in--you know, we lived out in the county--and our neighbor was blown up into a tree.' And I was like, `Oh, my gosh. Was she OK?' And he said, `Well, our grandmother gathered all the kids up'--and he was one of the children--`gathered us all up. We went next door and looked up into the tree and she really ha--was not--she had been just mashed into the V of the tree and hadn't been hurt really. But when they looked up into the tree, they saw that she had on holey underwear.' And his grandmother was absolutely mortified beyond words. And he said, `It impact'--it was probably the central thing that impacted her later life. Because they didn't have much money--and she went home after the woman got out of the tree, and the money that she'd saved she went out and bought the most expensive pair of underwear she could. And he said, `And every time the winds got high,' his nema(ph) would go and put on her tornado drawers. And so that was, you know--I just thought what, you know--that was a story that really stuck with me.
KAST: Didn't your mother tell you always to wear clean underwear because you didn't know what was going to happen?
Ms. SPARKS: Right. The wreck was really big on our minds--if you had a wreck and had on bad underwear. But now, you know, I'm kind of wondering when the weather gets difficult, you know, kind of checking my briefs to make sure I've got on a nice pair.
KAST: Minton Sparks' new CD, "Sin Sick," is available through her Web site, mintonsparks.com. She and guitarist John Jackson joined us from the studios of WPLN Nashville. You can listen to another performance recording and cuts from her new CD on our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of concert music)
KAST: Last night, NPR broadcast the Higher Ground concert to benefit Hurricane Katrina's survivors. Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall and many more performed. If you missed it, the concert is available at our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.
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