Guitarist Sparkie Watts was born and raised in Roanoke Rapids, where his parents both worked at the local textile mill. “We were poor,” Watts explains, “but everybody else was too…We stayed out of trouble because of Mama and Daddy.”
Watts spent what little free time he had away from the mill playing music. “My father was a guitar player, and that’s where I picked it up at an early age,” he says. The Watts home regularly hosted picking sessions, during which the young guitarist learned the rudiments of his musical technique. “My father and his friends played primarily hymns,” he remembers, “but then they also played stuff like ‘Soldier's Joy’ and ‘Black Mountain Rag.’ I would join in, although I wasn't doing too much.”
As a teenager, Watts put in long hours with his instrument and began developing the complex style that he is now known for. “Sometimes I would get with a couple of guys and we'd start playing on Friday afternoon around six o'clock,” he laughs. “We’d play until six o'clock the next morning. And sometimes we'd do it again the next night.”
Despite his regional renown, Watts all but stopped playing guitar in his early 20s. “I put it down for 25 or 30 years,” he remembers. Over time, however, he picked up the instrument again. “One of my brothers makes the comment frequently that I knew as much at 13 years-old as I know now,” laughs Watts. “But I think I've picked up a little more since then…It was always easy.”
Watts favors a fleet, jazzy fingerpicking style such as those pioneered by Chet Atkins and his favorite, Merle Travis. He plays walking rhythm patterns with his thumb, while his index finger picks the lead melody; his repertoire consists of tunes popularized by Travis as well as American standards, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Having raised a family and retired from the J.P. Stevens & Co. Textile mill, Watts now dedicates himself wholly to music. He often performs solo or in tandem with local musician Alan Stallings. He believes that his accomplishments and style of playing connect him to American music that he considers very important. “The style that I play,” he says, “you just don’t see many people doing it anymore.”
Will consider all program requests, as a soloist, or as a duo with Alan Stallings.