Sparky and Rhonda Rucker perform Civil War songs at Sugarlands

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 10:10 AM

When Sparky Rucker talks American history, he talks music.

“During the time of the Civil War,” the folklorist and musician said, “even people who were semi-illiterate would write letters and diaries and tell what songs they sang, what was popular. That’s how we remember historical events. What were the songs people were singing?”

On Saturday, July 20, Rucker and his wife, Rhonda, will present songs and stories of the Civil War at Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They perform at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“We’ve performed there several times doing Appalachian music,” Rhonda said. This time, she noted, supervisory ranger Kent Cave requested a Civil War-themed program to observe the conflict’s 150th anniversary.

At Sugarlands, the Maryville-based folk duo will draw on music from their Civil War-themed show “The Blue & Gray in Black & White,” which they have performed across the country.

The war divided the loyalties of the Appalachian region, Sparky noted, and the Ruckers’ program will reflect that divide. “A lot of the music we do shows the Civil War from both sides, North/South, black/white,” he said.

The Ruckers have performed together since 1989. He plays guitar and sings. She also sings, and she plays piano, clawhammer banjo and blues harmonica.

“She’s a versatile musician,” Sparky said. “I married a band.”

The two have released numerous albums, including their latest, “Let Freedom Ring.” “This one has some civil rights music, and also some movement music,” Rhonda said. “Women’s suffrage, the labor movement.”

A Knoxville native, Sparky has been a full-time musician since 1972. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and he embraced folk music as he encountered protest musicians of the day, such as Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan.

“I met Babe Stovall, Johnny Shines, Brownie McGhee, Big Joe Williams,” Sparky said, naming musical luminaries. Rhonda, he remarked with a laugh, “calls me the Forrest Gump of folk music, I’ve met so many people.”

Sparky worked as a schoolteacher after he graduated from the University of Tennessee. He also worked for the Council of the Southern Mountains, “doing social-change work,” he said, “basically trying to make Southern Appalachian lives better – fighting mountaintop removal, getting benefits for black lung disease, trying to get unions organized in various areas. I’m quite a rabble-rouser.”

Rhonda, who is from Louisville, Ky., met Sparky when he played a festival in Lexington, where she was attending the university.

She practiced medicine before she turned to music, writing and storytelling full-time.

The Ruckers are booked to perform at folk festivals and venues in the South, the Northeast and the Midwest, and next year they will host a musical tour of Ireland. It’s a busy schedule. Even so, their genre is not what it was in its commercial heyday.

“In the ‘60s, when I was in college, folk music was big, with coffeehouses on all the campuses,” Sparky said. Today, he noted, “folk music has taken a back seat. Music changes, in terms of what the powers that be want.”

Still, “folk music belongs to all of us,” he said. “Music is what bonds people together. That’s why we sing in church, and marching to war. That’s why we get that feeling of camaraderie. Songs are the soundtracks of our lives.”

When the Ruckers perform, Sparky said, “We encourage people to sing along.”