Minton Sparks,
Middlin' Sisters
(Dualtone, 2001)

Well! I wouldn't play this debut CD in mixed company, not if I was looking for party entertainment. This debut CD from performance poet Minton Sparks is more provocative than ordinary fare and sends conflicting messages of comfort and misery. The contents can be caught between the teeth and shaken and tossed, pulled and stretched, but will not fall apart, it's so strongly built. The material includes great work for a debating group, poetry or writing group to explore.

Minton Sparks articulates thoughts and truths that seldom find oral breath. Some of these stories have been jawed about behind the back door in the heat of the kitchen, or pound silently inside women's bodies as they lay the food out on the table, but they don't usually go talking about them in public. Outdoor talk revolves around other families; never speak about one's own. Minton bravely does. She calls a snake a snake without ever having to say the word. Stifling heat, bruises, odors and desperation that strain the bonds of family ties anywhere are depicted here through the rural scenes of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.

These Middlin' Sisters, as the CD is called, have given Minton her stories, most delivered through a child-woman's eyes. She gives it back very raw, creating vivid pictures and deep emotion as she describes the best and worst of family situations. The first piece, "Line Up," begins in childhood. Me Maw lines the children up for a whippin'. "Who wants it first?" Minton offers herself. And the lashes "sting like red wasps against my gangly legs." She and her "criminal cousins" line up so close they're "strangling each others' shadows." Harsh words delivered in her soft southern drawl surprisingly comfort as she speaks. She nails how rumors spread "hissed across the party line." All the more painful when it's your aunt being talked about. Be ready for colourful alliterative phrases that charm or make you cringe, such as "dark dashing daddy, drunk" and "belt-buckling backsides."

There's nothing pretty about this CD. Though it speaks of women, it's a sisterhood of strength and survival. I listened to it a month ago and it's locked in my mind for eternity. Three times I listened before writing this review. The first time, I played it while busy in the kitchen and my 21-year-old son caught pieces of it -- in a strange role reversal he was taken aback by the lyrics, ugly disturbing words, and I loved it.

The second time I played it while alone and a lively group of sisters invaded my sitting room ready for a good chat, a good clearing of the air. Yep, it was a no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is session. It's awesome how women can protect and share, and find strength in weakness by talking about things men don't talk about, even though the talk is on the things that men do.

The third time, I knew the women and listening was a prayer offered for them and their families, men and women all who were caught in hard times and hard situations.

Again, a contrast arises between the harshness of the material and the grace of its presentation. Smooth musical accompaniment fits the words like blue-glazed pottery around deep dish apple pie, adding delight to the serving.

A well-respected group worked on the arrangements, led by producer Marcus Hummon. Darryl Scott added Appalachian touches with mandolin, dobro, guitar and mandola, Rob Jackson played banjo and slide guitar, and Waylon Jennings provided a cappella vocals in the final cut, "John 3:16 Guest Preacher at Prayer Meeting." The group created a treasure of tradition and history in this CD.

I think the music and words are a gracious victory for strong Southern women of the 1940s and '50s. Minton says in the liner notes, "This collection is ... dedicated to great-aunts and grandmothers whose lives backbone this poetry. You will not be forgotten." This is really an out-of-the-ordinary, well-written and well-presented piece of art, worth a listen. If you like to hear and read poetry at all, then Sparks' skill with words alone should impress.

[ by Virginia MacIsaac ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001



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