Elmer Sparks, Part 2: Spreading Happiness through Bluegrass Music

Tuesday nights at the Muckwanago Library must be the happiest in all of Wisconsin. It’s the night of the monthly Bluegrass Jam. Even before I stepped foot in the room (April 9, 2018), the twangs, strums, and picking of banjos, guitars, and string bass wafted out to the corridor, compelling me like ancient Greek sirens. Without the danger.

Bluegrass isn’t just in the Ozarks or North Carolina. It’s alive and well in Wisconsin.

About 100 people of all ages were in attendance for three hours, the majority with white or gray hair. In the front rows, folks sat waiting their turn to play. Others in the audience had their own guitars, banjos, fiddles, and mandolins to accompany each song as they felt led. A twelve-year-old girl plucked her ukelele; her dad blew a harmonica. Some women tapped their toes while knitting.

Each month, bluegrass is the main course, but appetizers and side dishes of other genre are served, too, such as: Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful Life,” 1959’s doo-wop song “Teenager in Love” (sung by Peter in his Burl Ives voice), Elvis hits from time to time (Peter again), and various original songs. A string bass in back accompanies all.

Complemented by harmonica and string bass, Tim D strummed his guitar and sang Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Watch this rendition with great pictures of each place mentioned.

“I’ve been everywhere, man.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert’s bare, man.
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I’ve a-had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere.

I’ve been to
Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer. . . .”

Seems each verse got faster and faster, taking on the characteristics and challenge of a tongue twister. By the time Tim got to the fourth stanza, I feared he would need the paper bag treatment for hyperventilation.

“I’ve been to
Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado,
Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika,
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika,
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City,
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.

I’ve been everywhere, man . . .”


Next up: “I Wanna be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (Patsy Montana) with guitar, fiddle, and banjo. Here’s the Dixie Chicks version, complete with yodeling.

“I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart
I want to learn to rope and to ride
I want to ride o’er the plains and the deserts
Out west of that great divide
I want to hear the coyotes howlin’
While the sun sinks in the West
I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart
That’s the life I love the best. . . .”

Then a man called for a harmonica and two guitars in the key of C. With his fellow musicians, he crooned country singer Eddy Arnold’s “Bouquet of Roses.”

“I’m sending you a big bouquet of roses
One for every time you broke my heart. . . .”

Two guitars, a mandolin, and a string bass provided background for Elmer’s “I’m a Shoeshine Man” (Tom T. Hall). Listen here . . . 

“Well, I met the man in Montgomery, Alabama
I was waitin’ on a bus and he was shinin’ shoes
And I heard him say

I’m a shoeshine man, number one in the land
A shoeshine man, make you shine where you stand
Leave me a tip if you can, I’m a shoeshine man. . . .”

A guitar player sang “Goodnight, Irene” to the crowd like a lullaby.

“Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams . . .”

So goes the monthly three-hour library jam. And all of this started because of one man, Elmer Sparks.

Elmer Sparks

All photos courtesy of Elmer Sparks Photography.

Last time, Elmer discussed his photography. Today, he’s back to share his passion for bluegrass music.

Elmer: I often live between the notes. Notes are simply vibrations moving air. The creative music mind first lives between the notes, then rearranges them.

Playing guitar is a passion I have held since I was twelve. Today, after 67 years of life on this earth, my old guitar still sits in a coveted corner of my living room. It beckons me often with an enticing glance.

“How about a little bluegrass?” it says. “No? Then maybe some blues?”

“I know you like driving rock as well . . . Maybe we should kick that around some.”

“Country? I can do that!” And so begins a conversation.

I pick it up and strangle a few tortured notes from it, only to find that it gently moves me to a quiet place of contemplation. Music moves at a level of consciousness that defies science. It is intensely personal for me.

Like so many others, I am a walking contradiction. I feel no need to be in front of others playing, but I play in a band. There is a mutual resonance shared between those who love their music. It energizes. It creates an organic conversation that challenges you to consider, “What if I did it that way?”

Naperville Bluegrass Festival

And so begins the creative process.  A borrowed riff here, an inflection to a chord there.  An appreciation for life between the notes.

Do you write your own music and/or improvise?

Elmer: I do not read music. I have found that fact is a double-edged sword. Some  individuals who can read music find themselves psychologically bound to it such that they find it very difficult to do spontaneous improvisation. On the other hand, reading music makes playing new works with consistency much easier.

I contend that playing with heart in either process
results in a superior presentation.
A machine can replicate a chord.
Live performance by one who “feels” their music
can put life into a chord that is missing
by any other means.

Bluegrass typically has a melody line that becomes the building block for improvisation.  Players strive be conscious of the foundation, but add their own inflection and nuance, hopefully resulting in a creative and stronger overall presentation.

Jams are the perfect context for that process. Precision and technical prowess are not always the result in jams.

The greater satisfaction comes from working
with fellow musicians to create a joyous occasion
where contributions are valued and participants
can grow in their talents and friendships.
You don’t do that by playing alone at home.
You have to get out there and mix it up!

I do create my own music on occasion. Often it occurs when I just pick up my guitar and listen to what it has to say. I do think music is the result of both conscious and subconscious influence.

It might be trite to say,
but the best music comes from those
who have walked the hard path of life,
for better or worse.
Passion in life results in passion in music.

What’s the name of your band? Where and when do you play?

Elmer: We are the New Beginnings String Band. We play Classic Country, Bluegrass, and Rhythm and Blues. Here are some recent gigs we played:

• Center Stage at the Racine County Fair in July
• Mukwonago Library Bash, August 4
• Oconomowoc Festival of the Arts, August 18
• First Congregational Church in Rochester annual ice cream social, August 25

New Beginnings String Band: Dennis Potter, Al Varacins, Elmer Sparks, and Phil Peters

New Beginnings at the Racine County Fair

Tell me about the bluegrass jams you participate in.

Elmer: The Route 20 jam (I-94 and hwy 20 in Sturtevant) has been going on for 5-6 years.  My long time friend, Kathy Dahl, is the official host for that event.  It happens every first and third Thursday of the month (6pm-8:30pm). I have been attending that event since its inception. It is an open bluegrass jam; anyone can attend and play.  All ability levels are welcomed. There are some very talented folks who attend, as well as many dedicated listeners who come regularly. It is always a fun evening

How did the monthly jam at the library get started?

Elmer: I have been hosting an open music jam at the Mukwonago Library for about the past five years. Before that, I attended a jam at a coffee house in St. Francis for several years. Unfortunately, the business sold and attendees did not have a place for the jam. I contacted the Mukwonago Library and asked if they would be open to having a jam on their premise. It was an unusual request at the time. Libraries simply had not done jams before.

The library board finally agreed to give it a shot. The library director was amazed at the results. It turned out to be the biggest draw the library had for an event. Furthermore, the jam generated several thousand dollars to the library when we set out a tip jar! (The library did not ask for funds. The jam attendees decided a donation jar was a good thing to do!)

The success of this jam belongs to everyone who attends. I host it and coordinate logistics. I send out emails announcing the jam dates to a few hundred people who signed up to be notified. “Doc” has been our sound guy since day one and faithfully donates his equipment and expertise for every library jam. There are several musicians I play with regularly in other contexts who are also foundational—all wonderful folks!

Bonfire Bluegrass

How many people attend the jams? How many actually participate?

Elmer: Jams have become quite popular the past few years. The Mukwonago Library jam typically drew 80-120 people on a given night, with 25-30 players. Most players were there to be actively engaged. Some who were novices or new to the jam were perfectly welcome to sit in their seats and strum along.

I always encouraged people to engage to the extent they were comfortable. The objective is not perfection, but to grow in our friendships and musicianship. There was also a core group who consistently came to the jams to enjoy the listening experience.

Some might describe this as a creative oven.
We are all being baked to something wonderful.
We start off raw and slowly transform.

Music has been the sinew for the event, but time has shown it to be so much more . . .

• It was and is a healing process for me (as well as several others) in a common struggle with cancer.

• It has served as a safe place for all those who secretly hope to share and feel confident in their music.

• It is a place where you “start where you are” and know that others appreciate, encourage, and revel in your success.

• It is a welcoming home for those who just need to get out for an evening of levity and community connection. A place to rest the mind.

People sometimes thank me for the efforts I have put in to keep this jam alive. The reality, however, is that I have received so much more than I have given. Friendships, great music, laughter, humility, inspiration, and a truly expanded appreciation for “life between the notes.”

(I have suspended the library jam for the summer. I will look at reactivating it in the fall.)

Camp Douglas acoustic retreat

What are some of your favorite bluegrass tunes at the jams? Particularly ones you play?

Elmer: “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Rolling in my Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Any final thoughts on music?

Elmer: When I think of being “creative,” I do so with an appreciation that we sometimes do not fully context the term. GOD created from nothing. WE create by rearranging what God has provided.

How and what we chose to create is an
extrapolation of who we are.
Music is an intensely powerful medium.
How we choose to arrange or process just 7 notes
can express joy, anger, sorrow, awe, reverence, peace,
and a host of other human emotional states.

My wish for you, my friend, is that the walls of your day are spackled with the joy of music! Have a great day! (And don’t forget to pick up that guitar!)

One of the spontaneous concerts that sprung up during the week of music camp.

See more photos and get more information here:

On Elmer’s facebook page

And the band’s facebook page.

How does music touch you? Any favorite genre, instruments, or songs?

I welcome your comments below!

Ever musing,


10 thoughts on “Elmer Sparks, Part 2: Spreading Happiness through Bluegrass Music

  1. Bluegrass music is irresistible! It was fun reading lyrics of some songs I enjoy. I’ll be stumbling over the tongue-twisters in “I’ve Been Everywhere” and tapping my toes to the tune for the rest of the day.
    My brain has never been able to wrap itself around the mechanics of music—note reading, harmonizing, etc. But I am so thankful that others know how to create and share indiscriminately even with people who can only enjoy the end result while understanding nothing about the process.
    (When we were first married, we stumbled on a tiny bluegrass festival in a small county park overlooking the bluffs of western Wisconsin. It remains one of my favorite memories.)

    1. Yes, “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a tune that sticks in your head!

      Thank goodness people don’t need to understand how music works in order to enjoy it. I took piano lessons as a kid and took music classes in college (including a hymn-writing class!), and gained some understanding for what goes into creating and performing music. That certainly enhanced my appreciation for musicians everywhere.

  2. My 2nd grade teacher taught us to clog. Can’t do the fancy stuff, but 8 of us performed in a variety show. I still have the picture my mom took of me in my clogging skirt, all ready to practice in the kitchen. My smile, the biggest possible. (Had the chance to learn more, but that’s another story of how often we follow our friends instead of our heart.)

    Anyway, songs like these take me back to that classroom and how much I loved that teacher. Thanks for bringing back some great memories

    1. What a great memory, Elizabeth! I learned how to clog, too–as an adult. It was great fun but definitely not as cute as second graders clogging!

  3. Thank you for featuring Elmer Sparks. I’m under three miles from the Mukwonago library and never knew bluegrass was a happening thing there! I will definitely check this out!

    1. I hope you can attend, Bonnie! The next two Mukwonago Library jams (6pm – 9pm) are Tuesday, September 18 and Monday, October 22, 2018.

  4. I loved this thought.

    “I often live between the notes. Notes are simply vibrations moving air. The creative music mind first lives between the notes, then rearranges them.”

    Thank you for the story!

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