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James King takes the long view

By John Lupton, March 2002

"That song hits home," says bluegrass stalwart James King, 43, as he talks about "Thirty Years Of Farming," the title track from the newest release - his fourth - on Rounder Records.

While "Thirty Years Of Farming" is a trademark King treatment of a song that tells a sad story, the Virginia native and resident is anything but downbeat about his career and about the business of bluegrass.

King is also celebrating the recent release on Rebel of the third Longview release, "Lessons In Stone," a project that once again teams him up with Dudley Connell, Joe Mullins, Don Rigsby, Glen Duncan and Marshall Wilborn, after two discs having come out on Rounder.

Still, "Thirty Years..." strikes some sad chords, chronicling the heartache and despair of losing the land and livelihood that has sustained families through generations. It's a subject that resonates strongly with him.

"I know a bunch of farmers raised around me. Bunch of apple farmers, bunch of peach farmers, tomato farmers, tobacco farmers, and I've watched them lose those farms...here lately they've been losing them left and right."

Although it's a familiar American story these days, the song comes from the pen of Canadian roots artist Fred Eaglesmith, and King readily acknowledges not having known of Eaglesmith previously.

"I was in Canada about five years ago, and this guy invited me over to this campsite. He said, 'Have you ever heard 'Thirty Years of Farming' by a guy by the name of Fred Eaglesmith?' I said no, so he said 'I'm gonna give you a CD, take it home, and listen to it.' I brought it home, (listened to it and thought)...man, that would be a good bluegrass song. So I told (Rounder exec) Ken Irwin about it...we didn't talk much more about it, and then Ken called me one day and said, 'You still got that CD?...we need to do that.'"

As is often the case, though, the business of living sometimes causes the best of ideas to be moved to the back burner, and King wrestled with the idea of whether or not to record the song at all, let alone as the title track that is, until some good advice came from the home front.

"My wife came up with several of these songs on this new record...She's really responsible for 'Thirty Years of Farming,' making me do it. I was going to do it, then it got down to, I didn't know if I was going to do it, and she said I better do (it) if I had any sense."

With sentimental and often mournful tunes in his repertoire like "Thirty Years Of Farming" as well as "These Old Pictures" and "Bed By The Window" (the title tracks of two of his previous Rounder discs), many of his fans meeting him for the first time might expect King to be as forlorn and, well, lonesome as he sings, but in fact, he's an outgoing, optimistic sort who's thrilled to be able to make a living singing and playing bluegrass. He acknowledges his fondness for songs of heartache and sadness and says it's just what comes best to him - though he didn't realize it at first.

"It comes natural to me, I didn't know I could do that until 'These Old Pictures' came out. I didn't really know that that was my purpose. I'd always sung sad Stanley songs, but I never knew...For instance, I was in Elizabeth, Pa. one night, opening the show for Doyle (Lawson), and 'These Old Pictures' had just come out. It had been out about three months, and I was singin' it and was about halfway through it. There was seven or eight women out in the audience just in tears and men too. I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm doing something right.'"

Part of that talent for heart-wrenching singing would seem almost to be a heritage of his upbringing. Born in Martinsville, James King was raised in Cana, Va., in the heart of the Virginia-North Carolina borderlands that, regardless of what anyone in Nashville might say, are the true cradle of country music. Not far away is Bristol, where in 1927 Ralph Peer brought Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (whose Maces Spring home is also nearby) to the attention of the world, and a wealth of bluegrass and old time music talent has come out of the Galax-Mount Airy region, people like James' father, Jim, and his uncle, Joe Edd King. And, of course, James himself.

A little farther to the west are the Clinch Mountain homelands of the Stanley Brothers.

Ask him why that part of the country has been home to so many influential pickers and singers, and he chuckles.

"I just believe it was in the water. I mean, there's a ton of musicians that come out of that neck of the woods. But when I grew up, I grew right into it. My father, my uncle, everybody played bluegrass music. It was big, you know, and when I was 10 years old, I done the same thing, and when I got 16, I really got serious about it. I heard the Stanley Brothers for the first time, and paid close attention. It was about 1974, it's been about 30 years, I guess...and I'm still hooked on the Stanley Brothers."

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