The title of bluegrass storyteller James King’s latest disc comes from a quote by the legendary country songwriter, Harlan Howard. A good country song, Howard explained, was “three chords and the truth.” Now that’s just bullshit. Country music has always been as authentic as a three-dollar bill. Johnny Cash did not really served time in prison. Tammy Wynette never stood by her man. The lack of reality is a good thing. A good country song requires magic and imagination. King takes on 12 solid country tunes from the past written by masters such as Hank Williams and Billy Joe Shaver and originally recorded by mavens as George Jones and Vern Gosdin, and King does them bluegrass style.
The results showcase King’s vocal talents. He has a warm tone that sounds a bit smoky, as in the Great Smoky Mountains. Okay, so technically he’s a Virginian, but the results are pure Appalachian. Remember, there’s no reason to get too hung up on bona fides. He sings in a quiet manner, pronouncing each word carefully and with a slight twang. He’s ably aided by his pals Dudley Connell and Don Rigsby, who are also members with King in the group Longview.
The bluegrass musicians behind him—fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, banjoist and harmony fiddler Ronnie Stewart, mandolinist Jesse Brock, bassist Jason Moore, and guitarist Josh Williams—make sure not to step out in front of him. They propel the music without getting in King’s way.
While the similarities between country and bluegrass are clear, King and company illustrate the differences in their delivery. Consider their superb rendition of David Ball’s ghostly “Riding with Private Malone”. King emphasizes the details of the tale such as “had her shining like a diamond” or “the buttons on the radio didn’t seem to work quite right” to embellish the narrative. The backing vocalists take on the chorus and let their voices ring together like a bell to add beauty to the simple tale. The instrumentalists keep the pace moving forward like a steam train, fast enough to propel the listener without ever being a distraction. Compared with Ball’s original which was more in a country singer-songwriter vein, King’s version sounds almost like chamber music.
King and company turn all of these country classics into sweet bluegrass. Some, like Don Gibson’s “Blue Blue Day” and Cal Smith’s “Jason’s Farm” seem born to be turned into bluegrass. They fit the new form like a glove. And while some, like Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers” may seem more forced, King’s rendition reveals the Georgia side of the Texan Billy Joe’s past. King slurs the lyrics into two-word phrases so that “good luck” becomes “gooluk” and such, which suggests the meanings of the terms lie in their Southern geography.
Although modern country audiences probably won’t enjoy this album, “the old farts and jackasses” Blake Shelton famously referred to certainly will. The takes the old school back to an older school to a tradition that hearkens back to the Scotch-Irish music of King James’s time. James King’s melodious bluegrass honors its folkloric roots.