Minton Sparks

In the South, there are certain figures that take on a mythological air. They’re the folks that only have one name below the Mason-Dixon—the Dollys, the Garths, the Rebas of the world. They feel like family even though you’ve never met them; they make you rethink your patch of ground by telling you about theirs; they conjure some old storm inside you that you didn’t even know was brewing.

Nashville speaker-songwriter Minton Sparks follows in the tradition of these legends—but on her own terms. She recently made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium.

Though her spoken word/honky-tonk hybrid performances elicit whoops, hollers, and general hell-raising from beer-swilling good ole boys and latte-sipping intellectuals alike; and though she’s been dubbed everything from the lovechild of Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams to a backwoods Lucinda Williams, no one knows exactly what or who Minton Sparks really is.

On the one hand, she’s a decorated poet, playwright, and author that’s been invited to prestigious events like the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and Berry College’s Southern Women Writer’s Conference (alongside Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons). On the other hand, she’s a blue-collar troubadour that’s performed in the American Songbook Series at the Lincoln Center, appeared at the venerable Old Towne School of Folk Music, and served as teller-in-residence at the Jonesborough National Storytelling Festival.

Whatever she is and whatever she’s doing, it’s working: Minton’s been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, BBC’s Bob Harris Show, and WoodSong’s Old-Time Radio. This past year, she was selected as a Fellow at the Vanderbilt Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy. This year, she will be an artist in residence at the Banff Performing Arts Center. She’s also shared the stage with country and folk heavyweights like Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, and Punch Brothers.

A Tennessee native, former social worker, divinity school dropout, first-ever Spoken Word Award recipient at the Conference on Southern Literature, and founder of The Nashville Writing and Performance Institute, Minton established herself as Nashville’s first non-singing country singer with the release of 2001’s Middlin’ Sisters, where she had a chance to collaborate with the legendary Waylon Jennings.

Since then, she’s released two studio follow-ups—This Dress (2003), featuring a blues cut with Keb’ Mo. and Sin Sick (2005), where the Punch Brother’s Chris Thile haunted her words with his otherworldly mandolin—and a live record cut at Nashville’s Vahalla of bluegrass, The Station Inn.

On her first three efforts, Minton tells the hilarious, humble, and heartbreaking tales of characters like Giddy Up Gibson and Wicked Widow Pots over earnest finger-picking and gospel piano. They’re vienna sausage vignettes that not only speak to Minton’s storytelling, but to her authenticity as a true southerner as well. As John Prine aptly put it, “Minton Sparks is a great storyteller—humanity with humidity, all told humorously with humility.”

On her fifth release, Gold Digger, Minton breaks new (swampy) ground without losing an ounce of the hands-on-hip attitude of her earlier releases—and she’s enlisted legendary talent to help.

Side A sees longtime Minton bandleader and guitarist John Jackson—a seasoned road warrior who has played with the likes of Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, and Tom Jones—channeling Muddy Waters and John Fogerty instead of his usual Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. If Jackson was picking and grinning on Minton’s previous releases, he’s grunting and moaning on Gold Digger. When paired with Minton, he completes the duo’s country-fried Mick and-Keith dynamic.

Gold Digger’s first half might take you to the Delta, but Side B takes you on an airboat up to Nola. Guitarist Joe McMahan’s soulful Dixieland licks are accompanied by David Jaques (upright bass), and Shad Cobb (fiddle and banjo), making for what Nashville Scene and Rolling Stone Country contributor Jewly Hight describes as a “sinewy swing.”

Combine both halves of Gold Digger with production from the late, great Brian Harrison and stories about silicon-enhanced sugar-daddy hunters, and you’ve got a regular rural based opus. Just consider it another chapter in the already vibrant mythology of Minton Sparks.