Bare-legged in a housedress covered with red and orange flowers, spoken-word artist Minton Sparks walks to the microphone in bone-colored loafers, a purse of the same color hanging from her arm. As a guitar strums in the background, she begins to dramatize her poetry in a soft, Southern accent for a rapt audience.Poet, storyteller and performance artist rolled into one, Sparks, aka Jill Webb-Hill, MEd’91, draws from her family history to tell spellbinding stories, alternately funny and sad, serious and whimsical.
“I started writing these stories,” she says, “so my children would know our family history.” Her stage name, Minton Sparks, combines her maternal grandparents’ last names.
Her creative process always starts with a poem, which Sparks then takes to her accompanist, usually guitarist John Jackson or keyboardist Steve Conn.
“We discuss the mood of the piece,” she says, “and it becomes a conversation between the music and the poetry. It turns out to be something way better than what I originally wrote.”
Sparks then takes it on the road, fine-tuning her performance. Her 70-minute act consists of poems or short stories that last around three to four minutes—“about the length of a song,” she notes.
Sparks has won several awards, including Spoken Word Record of the Year in 1994 (Just Plain Folk Music Awards) and a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship in 1998. She has recorded three CDs, written two books, and created a line of greeting cards. A new CD, Minton Sparks, Live at Station Inn, is scheduled for release this fall. She recently branched out into co-writing songs with rocker Marshall Chapman, BA’71, and songwriter Gretchen Peters. She also has partnered with Waylon Jennings, Keb’ Mo’ and Maura O’Connell, and opened for artists like Nancy Griffith and John Prine.
Born in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Sparks received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., before earning a master’s degree in counseling from Peabody College. She also attended Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1992 and spent several years as a therapist in private practice, an experience that strongly influences her poetry.
“By listening deeply to other people’s stories,” she says, “I realized the healing power in telling stories.”
Find out more: www.mintonsparks.com
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.