At first mention, the idea of a bluegrass storyteller seems strange. After all, bluegrass music is marked by fast-played stringed instrumentation and high lonesome vocals. The narrative composed of words doesn’t seem as important as the overall sound they make: think of bluegrass classics like “Orange Blossom Special” or “Rocky Top”. Not much really happens lyrically. Their charm lies in the exuberant feelings the songs evoke and how the vocals blend with the musical accompaniment.
James King addresses this situation head on. He takes a number of newer country story songs and sings them bluegrass style, accompanied by his usual band of top-notch pickers, including mandolinist Kevin Prater, banjoist Ben Greene, bassist Jerry McNeely, and fiddler Adam Haynes. King practiced his bluegrass chops as a featured member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys during the 1980s. Tom T. Hall, the Country Music Hall of Fame singer/songwriter whose nickname is “The Storyteller,” gave King the moniker “The Bluegrass Storyteller” because of his smooth and articulate way of presenting a song as more than just a collection of words. King conveys the narratives through his clear voice and subtle phrasings.
Kings covers two of Hall’s songs here, “Second Hand Flowers” and “Whatever Happened to Julie?” Hall’s trademark is to tell a tale that suggests an emotion that can’t be described in a simple phrase. One has to understand the situation to comprehend the nuances of sorrow or joy or love or hate to truly appreciate it. These tunes are perfect examples. The first song implicates a man who has always enjoyed the favors of a fallback woman, a gal who knows she is number two in his life and welcomes him back whenever another woman he pursues breaks things off with him. This time when he comes to see her, he learns she is dying. The pang in King’s voice when the woman knowingly thanks the man for the “Second Hand Flowers” makes her mixed feelings of heartache and gladness clear.
The other Hall tune concerns a man who loves a woman, but her parents have forbidden him to see her. He spends years searching for her. She seems to have disappeared from the planet. The mix of surprise and sadness again occurs at the end when he discovers he has a daughter and learns that his true love died giving birth. King’s vocals set up the moment in such a way that one doesn’t know how the mystery will end until it is revealed in the lyrics.
Most of the other songs King covers share the same deep emotional core and surprise ending effect. The best include Fred Eaglesmith’s “Flowers in the Dell”, in which a twice-jilted lover throws his temptress in front of a train, and David Olney’s story about a religious charlatan on the verge of finding true faith, “Jerusalem Tomorrow”. King performs these country songs as if they were bluegrass tunes, with a fast tempo and bright voice. This works least successfully on “Saginaw, Michigan”, made famous by Lefty Frizzell in the early 1960s. The tale about a working class guy barred from his true love because of her father’s greed, only to use the father’s greed to trick him, doesn’t fit the bluegrass treatment as well as the others. The song seems rushed in a way that works against the words, as if the narrator knew from the beginning what he was to do and the suspense falls flat. Or maybe there are just too many references to Michigan and Alaska for a bluegrass song. The rest of the material, penned by talents such as Robert Earl Keen, Carl Jackson, and Bob Ferguson, is first-rate.
The disc closes with a hymn about the crucifixion, “Just as the Sun Went Down”. The fact that King can turn a religious narrative into a bluegrass story song again reveals the depth of his singing talents.