James "Sparky" Rucker
2022 National Association of Black Storytellers: Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowship
Year of Award
Grant or Fellowship
Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowships
James "Sparky" Rucker has been singing songs and telling stories from the American tradition for over fifty years. Sparky performs with his wife, Rhonda Rucker, adding vocals, guitar, banjo, and spoons to their music. They appeared on the Grammy-nominated CD, Singing Through the Hard Times, in 2009. Sparky has released fifteen albums, and their 1991 release, Treasures and Tears, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording.
Sparky grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and began playing guitar at age eleven. He is descended from a long line of Church of God, Sanctified preachers and law enforcement officers, and his sense of justice stems from both of these traditions.
Sparky has been involved with the Civil Rights Movement since the 1950s. He participated in workshops at the Highlander Center with many prominent people in the movement, such as Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, and Bernice Reagon. During the 1960s, he served as Vice President of the Black Student Union at the University of Tennessee. As an activist, he worked with the Poor People's Campaign and several civil rights organizations, including SNCC, SCLC, and SSOC. He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with SNCC Freedom Singers Matthew and Marshall Jones and played freedom songs at rallies, marches, and sit-ins alongside other folksingers such as Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. His support for others knew no color boundaries. He worked to win recognition and benefits for white Southern Appalachian coal miners as a staff member of the Council of the Southern Mountains in the 1970s.
During Sparky's career as a folksinger and social activist, he has been on the boards of Sing Out! magazine, the John Henry Memorial Foundation, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP). He also toured throughout the South with the SFCRP for several years with such luminaries as Johnny Shines, Anne Romaine, Rev. Pearly Brown, Nimrod Workman, and Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The legendary "Blues Queen" Victoria Spivey pushed his career in the 1970s when Sparky joined the Spivey recording family. Sparky’s expert blues and bottleneck style of guitar playing makes him a popular teacher at folk music camps and schools such as Common Ground on the Hill in Maryland and the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia.
Sparky is a contributing author for several books and anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Breathing the Same Air, More Ready-To-Tell Tales, Team Up! Tell In Tandem!, and the August House Book of Scary Stories.
As a keynote speaker and a solo performer, Sparky has appeared on NPR's Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Morning Edition. Sparky has also performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the International Storytelling Festival. Other performing credits include the American Folk Blues Tour in Europe, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap. He has also performed at many other major festivals, including Philadelphia, Piccolo Spoletto (South Carolina), Winnipeg, Gurten-Bern (Switzerland), and the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap.
Sparky's unique renditions of John Henry and Jesse James were used in the National Geographic Society’s 1994 video entitled Storytelling in North America. He also performed in Carry It On and Amazing Grace: Music in America, two videos produced by the Public Broadcasting System.
James "Sparky" Rucker on his roots in Black Appalachian storytelling:
My grandfather & two uncles were Church of God Sanctified preachers and nobody tells tales better than a fundamentalist preacher. Hearing various ministers give sermons from the Old Testament [the King James version] every Sunday helped me develop my "style" and showed me the way to naturally express myself on stage. My research into black storytelling and the unique music from these mountains added to my performances. As a political activist during the civil rights, women's rights, and anti-war movements, I conducted workshops at the Highlander Research & Education Center. For many years I served on the board of Sing Out! the Folk Song Magazine. The Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project also asked me to be on its board, and I did several tours throughout Southern Appalachia and the deep south with that organization. Getting to tour with master storyteller and singer Bessie Jones was an education in itself. Learning guitar licks and stories from Rev. Pearly Brown, Brownie McGee and Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong was priceless. More of my mentors are listed on our website: sparkyandrhonda.com. I have written stories in collections by August House and other publishers. I am a NABS Life Member.