Minton Sparks,
This Dress
(Rural, 2002)

The deeply accented southern voice of Minton Sparks reciting her poetry is accompanied by piano or fiddle or guitar and, on a couple of tracks, by singer Maura O'Connell. Minton paints vivid pictures with her words -- suddenly, you're at the gas station or the farm, or sitting beside her great aunt; you can feel the dress, or the rain. In going back to her history, recounting quiet tales of homeliness and hardship and the ordinary and the unusual in rural daily life, she guides her listeners on a colourful journey.

At first, detesting the practice of talking over music, I was disinclined to give this my attention, but Minton's slow drawl and twang should never be mistaken for a tawdry voice-over. Her poetry is nothing like as plain-seeming as her subject matter; every so often she throws out a sneaky and sophisticated rhyme just to serve to underline her point. Her metaphors are memorable, and somehow stronger for her speaking, rather than me reading to my imagination. The accompanying music serves only to further set the mood, to add a deeper wash of colour to the portraits and situations she crafts as she speaks.

This is music stripped to its roots, folk or country bared and pared down to pure words with the tiniest dash of musical flavour! Sparks lures you straight south, chewing grass, waiting for the bible class bus -- you can feel the heat. She nails you to your seat with the tension of "I Thought He Might Kill Her," as you avoid looking up for fear of being impaled by his gimlet eyes. "A young girl can't fathom what a hard woman knows," as she recollects her mama pumping gas to put her through school, "an oil-stained rag hangs off her pocket, around her neck she wears a locket, a picture of me pressed inside."

In an original twist, she deftly uses a dress as a startlingly evocative image, "a slack-shouldered emptiness..., forgetful now of summer days..., I wrestle this place, this cotton-field of a dress I wear." The most use of rhyme is in "Bird in a Cage," which also contains the most astounding and powerful phrases: "Now his mind wanders foxholes as his hand strangles the neck of his fiddle..., the music only fuels his rage as he ... saws twilight in two."

Minton Sparks is deceptive, a plain-speaking Southern woman who doesn't speak plain at all. A poetic force to be reckoned with, she demands that your ears pay attention, and your mind as it follows her laid-back voice, visualising the images she creates with clarity and ease. Her unique style will not appeal to everyone, and will probably have a bigger appeal in America than in Britain or elsewhere, but if you appreciate folk tales or poetry, listen up!

- Rambles
written by Jenny Ivor
published 19 July 2003