James King "Three Chords and the Truth" Rounder Records
Beyond the old joke about playing a country song backward, the most hackneyed cliché in music may be that a great country song takes only 'three chords and the truth.'
It's a cliché 'cause it's true.
James King has been making my kind of bluegrass for longer than I've been listening. That he has never reached the commercial heights of some contemporaries or been awarded the IBMA trophies lesser 'grassers have is not entirely a mystery.
Simply put, the man, respectfully, has at times had trouble getting out of his own way.
Still, he is- by most accounts- a good guy, rough around the edges perhaps, not the greatest businessman certainly, but he has always given a memorable performance when I've been in attendance.
From what I've witnessed, he is a darn good guitar picker and he has a voice just made for a country star of the 1960s. Good for us, then, that he has been releasing bluegrass albums for Rounder Records for over twenty years. I can't speak to the music he made prior to this association as I've never found the earliest recordings, or the albums with Ralph Stanley, but the six Rounder albums are among my favourites, although I don't play them nearly as often as I should, and his albums with Longview are rightly considered classics.
If you've not heard James King before, that's okay. We all come to things when we can, maybe even when we're supposed to, and this "Three Chords and the Truth" album is your chance to meet James King and start catching up.
If memory serves, the plan for this album has been in Ken Irwin's mind for a decade or more- I vaguely recall him once telling me he had a concept for James to make an album of country songs. At the time, I thought it a mistake as I interpreted that to mean a James King 'country' album, and I couldn't see James succeeding in that market.
Ken Irwin is way more thoughtful than I am.
Rather than recording a country album, Irwin and co-producer Steve Chandler have helped James King record what could eventually be regarded as his greatest bluegrass album. They handpicked some of the finest musicians available, gathered a couple other-worldly harmony singers, and then combed through some sixty years of country songs to find the ideal dozen for James to sing.
What they came up with is pretty remarkable, and the performances are uniformly spectacular. From the quite obscure ( Devil's Train, previously recorded by songwriter Cliff Carlisle, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff and Vernon Oxford's Shadows of My Mind) to album cuts (Highway to Nowhere from Jim Reeves and the Billy Joe Shaver classic Old Five and Dimers) and several hits (Don Gibson's Blue Blue Day and Cal Smith's Jason's Farm among them), they have balanced the very recognizable with the relatively unfamiliar.
None of which would matter if James King didn't sing each of these songs as if they had never before been recorded. He goes deep on these songs, bringing a sense of desperate isolation to Talkin' to the Wall (a #3 hit for Warner Mack) and fiery condemnation for those Sunday Morning Christians of Harlan Howard's. King has long been able to elevate great songs of place to timeless universality (Forty Years of Farming, Bed By the Window, Echo Mountain) and he does that again here with Riding With Private Malone, a song that David Ball took to #2 a bit more than a decade ago. King's version of this song stretches out the agony, the loss of unfulfilled dreams while emphasizing the unearthly elements of the song which seem designed for bluegrass, a la Bringing Mary Home.
While few country singers are going to attempt to equal Vern Gosdin's signature song Chiselled in Stone, King does so without seeming to break a sweat.
For me, the most controversial selection is He Stopped Loving Her Today, a song so engrained in the fabric of 80s country that it is questionable whether anyone but George Jones should again record it. The hit version is arguably the greatest country performance ever captured to tape, but having heard Jones sing it live more than once- sans strings and syrup- one is aware that the song is even better when stripped of gloss.
Now, imagine those words, that simple sounding melody, recreated as a bluegrass song. Man, that is one gorgeous recording. Jimmy Mattingly plays some beautiful fiddle on this track (and I believe Ron Stewart is in there, too), with Jason Moore's bass carrying the rhythm while Jesse Brock's mandolin notes comes through so powerfully. It all comes together on this song- King ensuring that he isn't over-singing the song, and Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell providing the vocal harmony depth the song requires. King's phrasing is different from Jones', and this helps him reinvent the song as his own without disregarding the song's storied history.
Josh Williams does all the guitar playing on the album, and within these arrangements it is easy to hear why he is considered one of the best in bluegrass, while Stewart- the IBMA's 2011 banjo player of the year- handles the 5.
"Three Chords and the Truth" is a wonderful bluegrass album. The photography by James' wife Julie and the package design from Jimmy Hole are top-notch. Randy Pitts' notes are insightful. The performances sound genuine with the natural qualities of bluegrass readily apparent. The song selection and sequencing are mindful. The instrumentation is- as expected when dealing with musicians at the top of their game- inarguably of the highest level. And James King's singing is immense- bold and powerful, nuanced and sensitive.
Is it the best bluegrass album of the 2014 IBMA Awards eligibility period? Who am I to judge, but I feel very strongly that it deserves to receive very serious consideration as the IBMA's Album of the Year. There have been some great albums released this past year- some from big names like The Del McCoury Band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and Blue Highway, as well as by Joe Mullins and Junior Sisk, Noam Pikelney, Terry Baucom, The Special Consensus, and others- so voters will have to make some hard choices.
James King has been underrepresented on the IBMA Awards stage, and by delivering an album as complete, powerful, and enjoyable as "Three Chords and the Truth"- previously nominated for a Grammy- he has certainly earned the opportunity to receive the Album of the Year trophy.
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