Minton Sparks

This Dress

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Why is it that Robert Altman hasn't made a film from the vignettes of Minton Sparks? Why is it that publishers aren't banging down her door in order to publish these small revelations of large truths? On her second full-length effort, Sparks is the greatest country singer who doesn't sing, a poet in a league with Lucinda Williams and Charles Williams, a storyteller as fine as Hazel Dickens; she's without peer among her generation. On the follow-up to the remarkable, profound, and quietly dazzling Middlin' Sisters, Sparks gives 12 more tomes that are every bit as lean, every bit as tough as anything to come from Nuyorican Poets Café and come out of a timeworn tradition that has been documented in field recordings by Alan Lomax and others in earlier generations, but has been left to the humid dirt now. Here are mothers, sisters, grandfathers, Waylon Jennings playing cards, dogs, rusted trucks, trailers, house dresses with stars wearing off them, bequeathed handbags, and country dances in the hot, steamy Southern night full of desire, excitement, and the desperate nature to hold on to the moment for all it's worth because there may not be another for a month. Mortality is everywhere on this record, underlining the feelings in the previous sentence. Sparks' stories have all the immediacy of a hip-hop narrative and the emotional depth of a prayer for salvation. But there is also an acceptance, quiet, plaintive, and unadorned by artifice. Sparks has some awesome help on this set: there's Maura O'Connell, whose Celtic, restrained, and mournful wail adorns two tracks; the criminally underappreciated Steve Conn plays bluesed-out piano and organ on four more; Tammy Rodgers and her high, lonesome fiddle lilt the fringes of a pair; Rob Jackson pulls out the fingerpicks on another couple; and Keb' Mo' plays a gutbucket bottleneck slide on another. There is nothing here that suggests anachronism, just a simpler truth mined for its meaning by the retelling of a story or a memory, real or imagined, in a poem. Sparks' poetry has the same teeth Rebecca Wells' novels have, but they also offer a burning passion that smolders under a plain cotton dress and a pair of pointy eyeglasses that know the secrets that lie in secrets. Once again Sparks thrills listeners with her wisdom, humor, and unflinching honesty that is so musical as to be as fierce and frightening as any punk ballad, yet as powerful as the lean, fine, sharpened lyrics offered by Sharon Olds and Eudora Welty. Sparks is singular, an outsider who offers far more than she receives. She instructs by trying to understand and This Dress is an album for everyone, no matter who they are or where they're from, the walk of life is offered here, step by step with roughshod grace, a twinkle in the eye, and the passing of another day. Brilliant.

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