Few bluegrass artists ever make an album as strong as Special Delivery, but Larry Sparks has reached such a high level of artistry that it seems a bit disappointing. That said, Special Delivery does provide all the hallmarks of Sparks’ 30-year career as a bandleader: soulful, passionate bluegrass vocals, precise, understated guitar work and well-chosen songs.

A private 53-year-old of proud countenance who cut his teeth with the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley, Sparks comes from the final generation of old-school bandleaders who expect their groups to first and foremost make their chief sound good. Today’s bluegrass bands mostly follow the partnership model popularized by the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. The old model permits a visionary artist like Sparks to shine and his music to evolve, while the new one helps ensure longevity of a specific lineup providing a tighter and tighter sound.

The traditional “Be Nobody’s But Mine,” Gary Ferguson’s “Timberline,” “Loving on Borrowed Time,” Hank Williams’ “California Zephyr,” and “I’m Moving” by Paul Craft and Cadillac Holmes all join the large ranks of classic Sparks. He eschews unnecessary matters, heading straight for the heart of the music. The focus settles clearly on the singer and the song. Sparks takes charge with his voice and sizzling–although most judiciously employed–guitar breaks, just as he does when he drops his shy offstage manner to become a commanding presence in performance. As a bonus, the CD includes the finest liner notes ever for a Sparks album, written by Durham’s Penny Parsons.

Nonetheless, as a total project, Special Delivery does not rank among Larry Sparks’ very best releases. Somehow, it seems to lack the sustained, consistent passion and intensity of his top-shelf albums. The sound comes across as only adequate, not totally crisp and clear. For example, on Ferguson’s gorgeous “The Undelivered Message” the arrangement seems a bit rushed, particularly the first instrumental section. That aside, Special Delivery contains some wonderful music by an underappreciated master of bluegrass music. In the end, you can’t go wrong with Larry Sparks.