James “Sparky” Rucker is descended from a longline of Church of God, Sanctified preachers and law enforcement officers, and his sense of justice stems from both of these traditions. Sparky's raucous guitar and singing styles are a direct result of his having performed in many doo-wop, soul, and rock bands. He 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. 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 John D. Loudermilk, Johnny Shines, Ola Belle Reed, Dewey Balfa, Dock Boggs, Anne Romaine, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Nimrod Workman, Hedy West, Mike Seeger, and Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers.
Sparky's unique renditions of John Henry and Jesse James were used in the National Geographic Society’s1994 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. He has received awards including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Certificate of Appreciation, Storytelling World Award, Knoxville Civil War Roundtable Award, NAACP Appreciation Award, Spirit of the Buffalo Soldier Award, and more.
Over forty years of performing, Sparky and Rhonda have performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as well as NPR's On Point, Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Morning Edition. Their recording, Treasures & Tears, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, and their music is also included on the Grammy-nominated anthology, Singing Through the Hard Times.
The Ruckers have been featured tellers at the International Storytelling Center and Festival. Sparky and Rhonda each tell solo stories, but they also tell stories together in tandem, adding life and humor to the characters and tricksters in their Brer Rabbit tales, Jack tales, High John the Conqueror stories, preacher tales, and family stories. Together, they have won awards including the Underground Railroad Free Press Award, the Spirit of Freedom Commemorative Medal of Honor(African American Civil War Memorial), the MLK Art Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Commission, the Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong Legacy Award.
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