music, storytelling, history
Sparky and Rhonda Rucker

Photo by Shawn Poynter

"It's an absolute must to see Sparky in concert!"

"Sparky has a rare musical talent combined with a scholarly interest in his material."

"Rhonda is a talented performer, accompanying her husband on harmonica and harmony vocals. It's on the harmonica that she really shines, reflecting her study of Sonny Terry's techniques and her study with harmonica wizard Phil Wiggins."
New Bedford Standard Times

JAMES "SPARKY" RUCKER has been singing songs and telling stories from the American tradition for over forty years. Sparky accompanies himself on guitar, banjo, and spoons, and has released fourteen recordings.

RHONDA HICKS RUCKER practiced medicine for five years before becoming a full-time folk musician. She is a versatile performer, playing blues harmonica, piano, banjo, and bones. Rhonda appears on eight recordings with her husband. Their 1991 release, Treasures and Tears, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording.

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SPARKY grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and began playing guitar at age eleven. He also played trumpet in the Junior High marching band and sang in church, school, and community choirs throughout his childhood.

Sparky is descended from a long line of Church of God, Sanctified preachers and law enforcement officers, and his sense of justice stems from both of these traditions. Sparky's mother and father, who were church officers, instilled a love of singing in him as a child, and his mother also gave him a love of art and culinary skills. Sparky's raucous guitar and singing styles are a direct result of his having performed in many doo-wop, soul, and rock bands.

Sparky has been involved with the civil rights movement since the 1950s. He participated in workshops at the Highlander Center with many prominent people in the movement, such as Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, and Bernice Reagon. During the 1960s, he served as Vice President of the Black Student Union at the University of Tennessee. As an activist, he worked with the Poor People's Campaign and several civil rights organizations, including SNCC, SCLC, and SSOC. He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with SNCC Freedom Singers Matthew and Marshall Jones and played freedom songs at rallies, marches, and sit-ins alongside other folksingers such as Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. His support for others knew no color boundaries. He worked to win recognition and benefits for white Southern Appalachian coal miners as a staff member of the Council of the Southern Mountains in the 1970s.

After graduating from University of Tennessee, Sparky taught school in Chattanooga before becoming a full-time folksinger. Although he no longer works as a formal schoolteacher, he and Rhonda now reach thousands of children each year as they travel across the country and give educational performances in schools and colleges.

During Sparky's career as a folksinger and social activist, he has been on the boards of Sing Out! magazine, the John Henry Memorial Foundation, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP). He also toured throughout the South with the SFCRP for several years with such luminaries as John D. Loudermilk, Johnny Shines, Ola Belle Reed, Dewey Balfa, Dock Boggs, Anne Romaine, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Nimrod Workman, Hedy West, Mike Seeger, and Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Sparky's early blues mentors include Rev. Pearly Brown (who taught Duane Allman how to play bottleneck-style guitar), Buddy Moss (who taught Blind Boy Fuller), and Johnny Shines (who traveled with blues legend Robert Johnson). He also picked up pointers from Babe Stovall, Big Joe Williams, John Jackson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and many others. The legendary "Blues Queen" Victoria Spivey pushed his career in the 1970s when Sparky joined the Spivey recording family. Sparkyís expert blues and bottleneck style of guitar playing makes him a popular teacher at folk music camps and schools such as Common Ground on the Hill in Maryland and the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia.


RHONDA RUCKER, from Louisville, Kentucky, has played piano since the age of four. She took piano lessons for many years from Fannie Woods Mansfield, an elderly woman who was both a ragtime composer and an organist at the local Baptist Church. As a teenager, Rhonda also took organ lessons, voice lessons, and taught herself to play guitar. She grew up in the Methodist Church, learning many of the old hymns and gospel songs, and she substituted for the organist when he couldn't make it to church. Rhonda also acted in community plays and sang in her high school chorus.

Rhonda's father worked as a full-time research chemist for thirty-five years, earning 66 U.S. patents during his career. Rhonda and her two brothers studied medicine, so there were three doctors in the family until Rhonda decided to become a full-time musician. Rhonda completed her medical degree and her internal medicine residency at University of Kentucky in Lexington. She practiced medicine for five years in Maryville, Tennessee.

In 1989 Rhonda began teaching herself how to play blues harmonica, and she began playing on stage with Sparky during that same year. She began by studying the techniques of Sonny Terry, the renowned blues harp player, but she quickly branched out to other styles of playing. Her expressive style of playing harmonica perfectly complements Sparky's guitar or banjo. Rhonda has also added clawhammer banjo and rhythmic bones to her instrumental repertoire, adding variety to their stage performances.


In recent years, Rhonda discovered that her childhood piano teacher, Fannie Bell Woods Mansfield, was not receiving credit for writing "Sweetness Rag," one of her own compositions that she used to teach her students. Mrs. Mansfield was born in 1892, and she had written "Sweetness Rag" when she was 19 years old and dedicated it to her husband-to-be, William J. Mansfield. Mrs. Mansfield had received $75 for it, and it was a nationwide hit. When Rhonda discovered that someone else was receiving credit for writing "Sweetness Rag," she made some phone calls to Mrs. Mansfield's family members and contacted the ragtime community members who had listed the wrong composer, and Mrs. Mansfield is finally receiving credit for her writing. Mrs. Mansfield's influence is evident in Rhonda's powerful, barrelhouse piano playing as well as her rocking gospel melodies.

Rhonda has become a passionate voice in social and environmental advocacy through her songwriting. Since early childhood, she has studied the ecological challenges that face our world. Her background as a physician also provides her with unique insights into numerous other social problems. Using her versatile musicianship, she has taken up her pen and created moving songs about such topics as global warming, the broken health care system, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sparky and Rhonda have taken their environmental message across the country, performing at numerous Earth Day celebrations, the Clearwater Festival in New York, various national parks, and environmental education centers.


As authors, SPARKY AND RHONDA have each written articles for the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, which was published by the University of Tennessee Press. Sparky and Rhonda also wrote a chapter for the storytelling book Team Up! Tell In Tandem!

JAMES "SPARKY" RUCKER contributed to Breathing the Same Air, an East Tennessee anthology of writings released in 2000. Also in 2000, he contributed to More Ready-To-Tell Tales, an anthology of stories from many of the nationís best professional storytellers.

RHONDA RUCKER'S article, "Rescuing Miracle," is scheduled for the February 2013 issue of Highlights magazine. She has also had articles published in several southeastern newspapers.

SPARKY & RHONDA RUCKER'S performing credits include the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the International Storytelling Center as well as NPR's On Point. Their recording, Treasures & Tears, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, and their music is included on the Grammy-nominated anthology, Singing Through the Hard Times, and the syndicated television miniseries The Wild West. They have also performed at the Kerrville Folk Festival, the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the Clearwater Folk Festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival, and the Robert Johnson Memorial Blues Festival.

As a keynote speaker and a solo performer, SPARKY RUCKER has appeared on NPR's Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Morning Edition. Other performing credits include the American Folk Blues Tour in Europe, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap. He has also performed at many other major festivals, including Philadelphia, Piccolo Spoletto (South Carolina), Winnipeg, Gurten-Bern (Switzerland), and the International Children's Festival at Wolf-Trap. Sparky's unique renditions of John Henry and Jesse James were used in the National Geographic Societyís 1994 video entitled Storytelling in North America. He also performed in Carry It On and Amazing Grace: Music in America, two videos produced by the Public Broadcasting System.

Go to APPEARANCES, PROJECTS, AND AWARDS for more information.







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