Live from Music Row Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee State Representative (R) Mike Sparks of Smyrna to the newsmakers line to discuss the motivation to introduce his bi-partisan bill which would make Amazing Grace into the official Tennessee state hymn.
Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker line by a good friend State Representative Mike Sparks. Last time we talked Mike you were in the studio. You had braved the sleet and the snow and the ice and made it into the studio at 5 a.m in the morning. It’s a little safer this morning than it was back then. but you are a brave man to make it through all that snow and ice.
Sparks: Yes sir I had a great time and I got stuck out front on music row for just a few minutes. The only fear I got here is if my coffee gets a little lower I’ll stub my toe here on my chair. (Leahy laughs) But I appreciate you having me in. I had a great time.
Leahy: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. So now you’ve got a very interesting bill that we want to talk about. Tell us about what you want to do here.
Sparks: Well House Bill 938 it’s asking for the hymn Amazing Grace to be an official state song or hymn if you will. A lot of folks at first glance may not think this is important. You see a lot of things that get in the news and sometimes I just shake my head at some of the things that the media covers. But I see the media a lot of time stirring up the pot trying to create a race war. Trying to create so many problems.
And that’s not an attack on 1510 or other stations. I don’t see that with you all. But I see the false narratives. I see what I call the agenda-setting theory. But where this originated at MTSU about four years ago I spoke about some of the histories to all the protesters out there at MTSU. And I just start talking about history. And I talked about John Newton who was a former slave ship captain.
He had a redemptive story, a powerful story of redemption. And he influenced the lawmaker named William Wilberforce in Great Britain and they fought tirelessly to end slavery. And it just shocked me that all these students that have a college degree or about to have a college degree didn’t know anything about history. And it’s just really surprising.
But was kind of cool and this is what I call this a God thing. the main protestor I’m talking to main Hellraiser. You just go to YouTube channel five and you could probably pull them up. He comes up with two frat brothers. He’s with Alpha Phi Alpha and he says representative is that why there’s William Wilberforce University in Ohio? And I said well, I would think so.
He said it was created by abolitionists. He said can I be your intern can I work for you as an intern? It was an odd question from the protester and I was like, yeah, let me check on this. And I checked around and somebody that interned a year earlier said I think that young man is searching. I think he’s searching and didn’t really have a father in his life.
And so we just kind of connected. but I told him I said if you’re going to protest don’t do that crazy don’t be part of no buildings or tearing up police cars. And we just hit it off. And we got along great. and I just see the state of affairs in America that worry me and concern me as a Christian. I think that we got to get back to some basics and it’s not just me saying so it’s others saying it. That’s kind of the essence of the bill.
Leahy: And so how many states have state hymns. Do you know?
Sparks: I’m not aware of state hymns. There are 10 different state songs in Tennessee and very few of your listeners have probably ever sung any of them. I think Tennessee Waltz and Rocky Top. But this song right here almost everyone has sung.
Leahy: Let’s hear Amazing Grace here. We’ve got it ready to go. Here it is.
(Amazing Grace plays)
Leahy: And State Representative Mike Sparks. That’s the beginning of Amazing Grace sung by Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton. Love that song.
Sparks: Amen. Yes.
Leahy: So are you introducing this bill? Is it to become the 11th state song of Tennessee or is it to become the official hymn of Tennessee?
Sparks: Well, we have it written as an official hymn. and the idea for Dolly Parton and it really wasn’t even my idea my assistant who’s a young African-American guy he’s not but about 26, Marvin Williamson it was really his idea because we kept thinking who out there? Because I wanted to make sure I covered everybody like Elvis, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Richard III, Oak Ridge Boys, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and the Memphis Spirit of the Memphis Quartet.
And I had a lot of famous people in here that’s mentioned in here as well as Dolly Parton. And my assistant brought up Dolly Parton. Another news source called me from Atlanta and I won’t say their name. But I didn’t really care to do the interview, but I just left them a recording and hopefully, they’ll be fair. But as I said the idea for Dolly Parton, it really wasn’t my idea. That was his idea.
Leahy: When you say Dolly Parton is Dolly Parton mentioned in this bill particularly.
Sparks: Yeah, it is. It just says Amazing Grace by John Newton and as sung by Dolly Parton as an official hymn of the state of Tennessee.
Leahy: Oh, okay. So it’s as sung by Dolly Parton.
Sparks: With the words and because I guess I’ve heard that there are different words that could be different in different ways people have sung the hymn. So we want to kind of nail that down.
Leahy: Did you see the movie that came out on Amazing Grace about 10 or 15 years ago?
Sparks: About William Wilberforce?
Leahy: William Wilberforce.
Sparks: Yes. It’s a powerful story these stories are powerful and stories that need to be told especially one that’s enriched with a strong conviction of John Newton. Because I had a choir come up and sing this about four-five years ago. And the story if you’ve watched the movie talks about John Newton being so bad that he could out cuss any sailor. And he was even sold into slavery himself and had to be bought back from his father. They sent a crew down to Sri Lanka if I’m not mistaken. But it’s a powerful story if folks want to know more just go to YouTube and type in Amazing Grace and Wiliam Wilberforce it should pop up.
Leahy: And by the way, I bring that up because there was a songwriter I think they were from Nashville who was commissioned in that movie to write a couple of new verses of Amazing Grace, which was quite a thing to do. Those new verses I thought were quite good. But what’s interesting to me and to ask you State Representative Mike Sparks is this. What sort of opposition is your bill to make Amazing Grace as sung by Dolly Parton the official state hymn of Tennessee? What sort of opposition is that bill receiving?
Sparks: Great question. None so far. But what concerns me is is the media because I’ve seen them create fake news. I’ve seen them lie. I shared with you Michael that I’m going back to school to MTSU to learn journalism to combat some of the fake news some of the false narratives out there. But I’ve always said, the good Lord will direct you if you really call on him. And at MTSU I’ve got to give Dr. Greg Reish some kudos. He’s with the MTSU Center for Popular Music. I reached out to him for some advice.
Leahy: The Center for Popular Music is a great center there at Middle Tennessee State University.
Sparks: They are. And I brought this up last year that I wanted to look at doing this. So this wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction. This was going back last year. But the book that he recommended me to get if anybody wants to get this, it’s called Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Beloved Song by Steve Turner. Well, I didn’t know who Steve Turner was so I got the book and I started reading the back of it.
Well, Steve Turner had written it for Rolling Stone Magazine. But I want to give you a quote real quick Michael and you’ll trip out when you hear who this quote is from. It says, “Steve Turner is a tough-minded poet with an ear for the psalms and an eye for the miracles in the mundane and an understanding of how despair can break the ground for joy to take root.” Guess who said that?
Leahy: Willie Nelson?
Sparks: No. Bono.
Sparks: Yes, of U2. I went to YouTube pull it up and I just typed in Bono Amazing Grace and here’s where I got confirmation. Bono is singing Amazing Grace in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, I’ve reached out to Bono and sent a little email.
Leahy: Do you think Bono might be a little upset that it’s Amazing Grace as sung by Dolly Parton and not sung by Bono?
Sparks: He might. (Leahy chuckles) It’s sad we have to be aware that somebody will try to take something and turn it into a negative. That young man, that protester really, it was the hymn that connected us. I’ll argue that that hymn has probably turned more hearts and more lives around than any other song ever sang.
Senator Akbari out of Memphis is carrying it. She’s an African-American Democrat, so and I didn’t even ask her. She stepped up to do it. And Malik her assistant has been involved with it. And so I just want to thank Malik and my assistant Marvel Williamson for their efforts to be so supportive. They are a group of young believers.
Leahy: It sounds like it’s bipartisan.
Listen to the full first hour here:
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