Pop Wagner's "Spark of Life," readily and joyfully displays the artistic and philosophical maturity to which an old friend and long-time picker, fiddler, and singer has grown. There are songs I have heard him sing through the years. Some date back to the 1970s and his days with Mad Jack and the Black Label Boys: "Goodbye, Miss Liza," "I Took My Gal A-Walkin'," "Dance All Night With a Bottle in My Hand." And there are songs I had no idea he even knew--like "Otto Wood the Bandit," "The Lone Pilgrim," and "Stop That Thing."
The album title is a paraphrase of the opening line of "You've Been a Friend to Me." Instead of "My bark of life..." as Mother Maybelle sang on the old Victor 78, Pop took a cue from fellow Ohioan Bill Lowe, who sang, "My spark of life..." "I like to think of the music itself as my spark of life," Pop explains. His plain, unadorned but soulful voice tells you a lot about the stories behind the lyrics. A singer as honest and unpretentious as Pop makes us aware of the relevance of older words to newer woes.
Pop's fingerpicking deserves special mention. Nobody I've heard recently comes anywhere close to Pop's ability to conjure and coax the sounds of the late Mississippi John Hurt from a guitar. Two John Hurt pieces are prominently featured: "Frankie and Albert," a predecessor of the better-known "Frankie and Johnny," and "Danville Blues," Pop's blending of the "Danville Girl" theme with Hurt's "Got the Blues, Can't Be Satisfied." Pop is not content merely to faithfully interpret these classics. Even the most casual listener will marvel at the depth of Hurt's influence on Pop's playing, and Pop's utter mastery of Hurt's principles of style. On two tracks ("Otto Wood" and "Stop That Thing") Pop accompanies his singing with a nine-string guitar which has octave pairs for the A, D and G strings.
There's a deft balance between Pop's solo performance on guitar and his equally engaging ensemble work. His solid old-time fiddling is accompanied by old pro Bob Douglas on mandolin, with rhythm guitar chores falling to the more-than-capable hands of Adam Granger and producer-recordist Dakota Dave Hull. The high energy and flavor of pre-bluegrass Southern mountain string bands come through in spades--the influence of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith with Sam & Kirk McGee from Sunny Tennessee being most prominent. The Carter Family songbag is also well represented by "Jealous Hearted Me" and "You've Been a Friend to Me." You can hear that everybody had a great time recording these tracks, and that each player has huge long-time respect for the others.
"The Golden Vanity," in a very non-standard setting, and "Geraldine," an original ballad of forsaken love (whose title was suggested by a local tavern's neon sign), round out the CD. It's a project that represents the culmination of a thirty-year career dedicated to the preservation and furtherance of old time music in several genres. In sum, I think you'll agree that with offering, Pop has once more outdistanced himself in the pursuit of recorded perfection.
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