BIO Stop me if you've heard this one. Guy walks into a bar. And now he leads one of the hottest bands in Austin. The end. Actually, that's just the beginning, even though the punchline does tell a key part of this story. The guy we're talking about is Cody Sparks. He heads The Cody Sparks Band, whose raw, spirited music stands out even in the teeming Texas country scene. He's a big, amiable guy who looks right at home onstage. Yet his songs often tell stories about heartbreak -- about the lighter side of broken romance (the playful "My Baby's Gone") or the fury kindled by betrayal (laid out over a foot-stompin' beat on "No Time"). He writes with artful metaphor ("Set in the West") and reckless abandon ("Stilly"). And he finds time to share some of the wisdom handed down him by his grandfather in the wistful, fiddle-laced "Sinners and the Saved." These songs and all the others on the band's debut album, Sinners and the Saved, suggest that Sparks must have started writing years ago, that he's absorbed plenty of one-two punches from both the music business and life in general. Well, kinda. "We've been pretty lucky," is how he puts it. "More than that, we're very, very blessed. I've talked to guys who have been working the clubs for seven or eight years and they haven't come close to what we've accomplished from just doing this for a year and a half." This is no boast. It's more like amazement at how far Sparks has come in such a short time. Consider this: He was 20 years old before he ever picked up a guitar -- and it wasn't until three years after that that he sang for the first time. Instead, growing up a pastor's son in the Texas Panhandle, he spent his first two decades obsessing about sports. Sure, there was music in his household -- his younger brother Seth started playing drums at a precocious age, and his dad had toured and recorded with several gospel quartets. As far back as seventh grade, Cody had started listening to music with more than idle interest. "I was on the bus going to a basketball tournament and my friend had a Pat Green CD," he remembers. "I took my Newsboys CD out from my Walkman, put Pat Green in and heard 'Wave on Wave.' I was like, 'Whoa who is this guy?'" Still, a football scholarship was Sparks's ticket into Oklahoma Panhandle State University. His aspirations were more athletic than artistic for a long time. But then, he recalls, "in the off-season, I was on a retreat and I saw this guy playing a guitar. I thought it was interesting, so I asked for a guitar for Christmas. My dad laughed and said 'What the heck do you want a guitar for?' But he got me one. Then I went to Walmart, bought myself a chord chart and taught myself to play. I still remember the first time I pushed the strings down hard enough to actually play a G chord. I was like, 'Holy smokes! That's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard!'" Eventually, sports had to shove over and make room for music. Cody recruited his brother Seth, put a group together and and in three weeks learned 20 Texas country favorites. They debuted at the annual Wheatheart of the Nation Celebration in their hometown of Perryton and soon were booking local shows. When Cody moved to Amarillo with a new job coaching high school football and basketball, he kept playing music too. Then came the inevitable fork in the road. "I always knew that music would be with me," he says. "You can play music forever. But I decided that if you have an opportunity to do it for real, you should take advantage of it." With that, he, Seth and a guitar player moved together to Austin. And Cody's real education began shortly after that, when he actually did walk into a bar … "It was a cold, rainy Tuesday night in February," he notes. "We went to the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. Somebody was playing and I was like, 'I could do that!' So I went up to the bartender and said, 'How do you get booked here?' She said, 'You see that man sitting over there in the corner. His name is Kent. Why don't you ask him?'" This was, of course, Kent Finlay, celebrated songwriter and proprietor of the Warehouse, who had mentored George Strait, Hal Ketchum, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison and many other outstanding artists-to-be. "I said, 'Hi! My name is Cody Sparks. How do you get booked in this bar?' He said, 'Do you write your own songs?' I said, 'Well, no, not really, but we can play a ton of covers!' And he said, 'Write some songs and then come back and talk to me.' And I said, 'Okey dokey!" Around that same time, the hand of fate guided Sparks to the local Whataburger, where he struck up a conversation with songwriters Jordan York and Haley Cole, who invited him over and played a few of their songs for him. "I just went, 'Holy cow, these are so good!'" Sparks says. "So I went home and wrote my first song." Once he had a bunch of original tunes, Sparks started rounding up gigs. "I took my guitar, walked into the bar and said, 'You guys do live music?' I'd play a song for the owner. He'd say, 'Can you come back and play an acoustic show?' So I came back, played a two-hour acoustic show and he said, 'Do you have a band?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' 'See you guys Friday night.'" And that's pretty much how it started. From there the story takes the Cody Sparks Band onto countless stages as featured acts or opening for Jerry Jeff Walker, Cody Canada, Casey Donahew, Curtis Grimes, the Dirty River Boys and Shane Smith & The Saints. They've battled their way into the Top 20 and eventually advancing to the top 5 out of more than 1,200 contenders in the Red Dirt Battle of the Bands, staged at the Wormy Dog Saloon in Oklahoma City. And in May it led them into a recording studio for the first time. Produced by Shane Smith's guitar player Tim Allen, Sinners and the Saved launched their first single, "Oklahoma Fool," into the Top 10 of the ReverbNation Country charts, with its vivid picture of growing up as Sparks did, on late-night drives down dirt roads near Colter's Hollow with friends, a brilliant starry sky and hours to kill in making memories that would someday be set to music. "A year and a half ago, we weren't anywhere close to where we are now," he reflects. "A year and a half from now, I highly doubt we'll be anywhere close to where we are at this moment. As long as we can keep progressing and getting better and continue to grow a following, we'll keep moving forward." Then, with a smile, Sparks adds, "Besides, I can always go back to coaching high school when I'm 50, 60 or 70." Which adds up to a long time … and a lot of great Cody Sparks Band music … ahead of us all.