Musician Rucker earns storytelling honor

Betsy PickleBlount, Our Town Arts

Blues, soul, rock ’n’ roll. That’s where Sparky Rucker got his feet wet when he started his professional career as an entertainer more than 50 years ago. But the critically acclaimed, internationally renowned Knoxville native has never set limits for himself.

As proof, Rucker was recently honored with a 2022 Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowship Award, one of six in the country and the only one from Tennessee.

Sparky Rucker at the 2019 Louie Bluie Festival (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

In addition to a $4,000 prize to aid in the business of his art, he will receive a one-year membership in the National Association of Black Storytellers and funds to travel to Baltimore, Maryland, in November to present at the 40th annual National Black Storytelling Association Festival and Conference. He is also required to do a project for his home area.

“I was surprised that they asked me to apply for it, and I was sure I wouldn’t get it,” says Rucker, who makes his home in Maryville with his wife and musical partner, Rhonda Rucker. “It’s a real honor.”

Undated publicity photo of Sparky Rucker

James “Sparky” Rucker, whose grandfather and two uncles were preachers, came by his knack for storytelling genetically. He says he thinks what makes a good storyteller is “the same characteristic that makes a good country preacher.”

“Every Sunday they’ve got to tell a new story about the same book. They’ve been using the same source material – which is not that large – for centuries. Yet still some can hold you spellbound.

“I was enthralled hearing some of these preachers. At the appropriate time the choir would start singing, and it’s really a dramatic presentation as opposed to some of the other churches I’d gone to that were, should I say, boring.”

On the phone, as on the stage, Rucker breathes stories.

Sparky Rucker’s kindergarten graduation photo

“I grew up in my grandfather’s church, which is the Church of God, Sanctified,” he says. “I even have a rap that I do … about that, saying that by the very nature of them calling it the ‘Church of God, Sanctified,’ it means that they think all other churches are not sanctified, and then I go on from there,” he says with a laugh.

As a boy, Rucker lived in the Austin Homes Apartments. After graduating from Austin High School (before it merged with East High), he entered the University of Tennessee in 1964 as a zoology major. (Segregation still cast a cloud over the campus as UT had begun accepting Black undergraduate students only in 1961.)

Zoology didn’t turn out to be his cup of tea. “‘Oh, you mean we don’t get to play with the animals?!’ was his reaction. Fortunately, he had picked up some of his mother’s aptitude as a visual artist, so he switched to fine arts painting. He thrived in the close-knit, creative environment. But when he was “coerced” into deciding what he would do for a career, he settled on the practicality of teaching.

Early photo of Sparky and Rhonda Rucker in San Francisco (Photo by Deidre Anne)

“I taught school in Chattanooga for a couple of years,” he says. “Then I realized that the education system in public schools was very draconian. Much like what’s going on today – how they’re telling people what books they can read and what teachers can teach and how they can teach it, and politicians getting involved – well, it was pretty much like that, too.”

Rucker did manage to have some fun around that time, attending music festivals including the second Atlanta International Pop Festival July 3-5, 1970, in a field adjacent to the Middle Georgia Raceway in Byron, Georgia.

“I got to hear Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad, Johnny Winter, the Chambers Bros. It was a wonderful, wonderful three days down there.”

Sparky Rucker, left, at a protest.

Rucker signed on with an organization working for social change in the coal-mining communities of Kentucky and southwest Virginia, but other changes were being felt as well, especially in the Labor movement. United Mine Workers chief Tony Boyle ordered a hit on challenger Jock Jablonski and his family, and the murders put everyone in the mining world on edge. As a Black man in a white community, Rucker was viewed with suspicion, and he received bomb threats.

It was time for another career change.

He had never thought of pursuing music for a living, despite have played with bands at clubs and as a solo artist in coffeehouses during college.

“But all of a sudden, that was what was left for me to do. It was almost like God saying, ‘OK, I’m closing this door, I’m closing this door – ah, here’s a window you can crawl out of.”

Sparky Rucker performs at the Back Door Coffeehouse in the Presbyterian Student Center on the University of Tennessee campus, circa 1965.

Rucker says he didn’t seek out jobs; they just came to him.

“I know it sounds unbelievable, but that’s really the way I did it,” he says. “I didn’t have these planned tours. I would go to California, do a job that somebody asked me to do, then I’d go to Boston, just zooming back and forth. I was doing close to 100,000 miles a year driving. And the thing is, I made an OK living doing that, but it didn’t make sense. There was no way to save any money.”

He finally got organized when he met Rhonda on June 12, 1986, at the Woodland Jubilee in Lexington, Kentucky. She had finished three years of medical school but wasn’t happy with her chosen field. Still, she stayed and finished med school. When Sparky landed a job performing at schools out West, Rhonda traveled with him the last quarter of 1988. She already knew how to play piano, and she added harmonica, banjo and vocals.

“It was a really wonderful time,” says Sparky. “Then we came home, and we got married.”

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker (Photo by Pam Zamppardino)

Rhonda brought not only romance and “a one-woman band” to Sparky’s life, but she also brought order to his travel chaos.

Rucker says he thought of himself as a storyteller early on in his solo career until he listened to some tapes and discovered he mumbled between songs. As time passed, he realized he felt compelled to share with his audiences the background of the folk and traditional songs he played.

“I began to develop these stories as well as some old folk tales that I had read as a kid or things that I was learning as I was going along. It just sort of grew. Once again, it’s almost like there was this guiding hand steering me into this.

“Because my grandfather and my uncles were preachers, they thought that I should be the next generation of preacher in that church. It’s almost like they prayed for me to become what I became.”

Both of the Ruckers have evolved into storytellers (Rhonda is also a published author) and sometimes they tell tales in tandem. They also both run into the same problem booking gigs sometimes – music venues fear they might lean too heavily on storytelling, while storytelling festivals worry that they might fill their sets with music.

Even though they’re not easily pigeonholed, they’re usually able to convince bookers that their hybrid talents are a bonus.

At 76, Rucker has no thoughts of retiring.

“What I do for a living is what keeps me going,” he says. “My vocation is the same thing as my job. I feel blessed that this is what path my life took.

“So many people don’t like the jobs that they have, and it’s a drudgery to get up and go to work. When I’m at a concert or festival, I really feel alive.”

Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter.

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