Opera House presents acclaimed folk duo

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker first appeared in 2009 and are returning to kick off the series with a live concert on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

In celebration of 30 years of the Folk in Fredonia Music Series, the 1891 Fredonia Opera House Performing Arts Center in 2024 is bringing back some of the artists who performed in the earlier years of the series. Acclaimed duo Sparky and Rhonda Rucker first appeared in 2009 and are returning to kick off the series with a live concert on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

James “Sparky” Rucker has been singing songs and telling stories from the American tradition for more than 50 years. Sparky performs with his wife, Rhonda, who adds vocals, guitar, banjo, and spoons to their music. The duo appeared on the Grammy-nominated CD, Singing Through the Hard Times, in 2009. Sparky has released 16 albums, and their joint 1991 release, Treasures and Tears, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording.

Sparky grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and began playing guitar at age 11. He also played trumpet in the Junior High marching band and sang in church, school, and community choirs throughout his childhood.

Descended from a long line of Church of God, Sanctified preachers and law enforcement officers, he has been involved with the civil rights movement since the 1950s. and participated in workshops at the Highlander Research and Education Center with many prominent people in the movement, such as Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, and Bernice Reagon. During the 1960s, he served as VP 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. He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers Matthew and Marshall Jones, and played freedom songs at rallies, marches, and sit-ins alongside folk singers such as Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. His support for others knew no color boundaries; and 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.

He 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, he has appeared on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Morning Edition. He also has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the International Storytelling Festival, as well as on the American Folk Blues Tour in Europe, and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap. His unique renditions of “John Henry” and “Jesse James” were used in the National Geographic Society’s 1994 video entitled Storytelling in North America.

For 30 years, Rhonda Lynn Rucker has been a professional musician, author, and storyteller. Performing with Sparky, the duo has recorded 10 albums together. Their music was included on the television miniseries documentary, The Wild West, narrated by Jack Lemmon.

Growing up in Louisville, KY, Rhonda began taking piano lessons at the age of 4. However, music wasn’t her only childhood passion. Growing up in woods that were also home to frogs, whippoorwills, and bobwhite quail, Rhonda noticed how all living things were dependent on one another. In her spare time, she studied ecology and science and also wrote poetry. As a teenager, Rhonda attended folk festivals. After hearing performers like Jean Ritchie and Lily May Ledford, she was fascinated by music’s power to inspire social and environmental change.

A strong interest in science and health led Rhonda to the University of Kentucky, where she completed medical school and residency. During her training, she spent time in the small towns of eastern Kentucky, where she grew to appreciate the heritage and culture of Southern Appalachia. She carried that experience with her while practicing internal medicine for five years in Maryville, TN. After meeting and marrying Sparky, Rhonda left medicine to effect change with music.

She is a multi-instrumentalist, playing blues-style harmonica, banjo, piano, guitar, and rhythmic bones. While much of the duo’s repertoire is traditional American folk, Rhonda also writes originals with powerful melodies rooted in the folk and gospel genres; these songs often address difficult topics like climate change. The two musicians have been ecological troubadours, performing at the Clearwater Festival in New York as well as Earth Day celebrations, national parks, and environmental education centers across the country.

Her performing credits include the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Festival, NPR’s All Things Considered, the International Storytelling Center, and the National Folk Festivals of Australia and Scotland. Rhonda contributed to educational media projects for Scholastic, the National Geographic Society, Kentucky Educational Television, and the Eastern National Park and Monument Association.

Tickets to the concert are $20 (Adults), $18 (Opera House Members), and $10 (Students) and can be purchased in person at the Opera House Box Office or by phone at 716-679-1891, Tuesday-Friday, 12-4:30 p.m. They can be purchased online anytime at www.fredopera.org. The Folk in Fredonia Music Series for 30 years has been sponsored by The Gilman Family.

The 1891 Fredonia Opera House Performing Arts Center is a member-supported not-for-profit performing arts center with a mission to “present the performing arts for the benefit of our community and region … providing access to artistic diversity … and high-quality programming at an affordable price.” It is located in Village Hall in downtown Fredonia. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.fredopera.org.


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