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James King: stands tall

By Jon Weisberger, January 1999

Jaames King isn't a tall man, but with the recent release of "Bed By The Window" and the forthcoming release of a second album by Longview, the "supergroup" with which he sings, he is a man with a high profile in bluegrass.

"It's unreal," the Virginia native says backstage at the Mountain Arts Center (MAC) in Prestonsburg, Ky. recently. "I don't mean to boast, but we really seem to have a hit. When the album came out, and I actually held it in my hands, I looked at (producer/Rounder Records partner) Ken Irwin, and said, 'well, what do you think?' He said, 'it's mighty strong; we'll know how it does in a few months.'"

"The more I listened to the album, the more I liked it," he says of his third album, "but you never know how people are going to take it. And it can take a long time for a new bluegrass CD to really get going. That's why I was so surprised when the song ("Bed By The Window") got on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart so quickly. I'm really thankful for how much the fans seem to like it."

The fact is, though, that the fans have liked just about everything King's been involved in this decade, from his first CD (1993's "These Old Pictures") to his guest appearances on the Stanley Tradition albums (the first drew a Grammy nomination for bluegrass album of the year), Paul Williams' acclaimed all-gospel return to recording, "Ain't God Good," the Longview albums and now to the first of his albums to feature his regular touring band.

"Yeah, this one is a little bit special because it's my band. The first two - especially "These Old Pictures" - were made with what was basically the Johnson Mountain Boys, some people said, 'well, anybody can make a record with that band backing you. I think I delivered some lead singing, but still, it sounds a little bit like the Johnson Mountain Boys. This one is more of my sound."

Not that there's that much of a difference; King is a forceful, distinctive vocalist who puts his stamp on whatever he sings. On "The Stanley Gospel Tradition," he pays homage to a main influence by performing two Carter Stanley songs, sounding eerily like the late bluegrass pioneer, yet at the same time immediately recognizable.

Still, recording with his own band - Adam Poindexter (banjo), Jason Moore (bass) and Kevin Prater (mandolin), plus fiddler Owen Saunders, who joined in time to play on two songs (ace fiddler Bobby Hicks appears on most of the rest of the album) - seems to have given King an extra measure of inspiration.

For King, there's not much of a difference between country and bluegrass music. Though steeped in the Stanley tradition, he says he gets the same feeling from many country songs.

"The main thing, I feel, is whether a song comes from the heart, whether it tells a story. When it has that feel to it, I can put it right into my style, a bluegrass style, and it'll fit just fine. I like a song that has a good, sad story to it."

That certainly describes "Bed By The Window," a story of two residents in a nursing home, but in that case, some extra work was required.

"Ken Irwin gave me a tape that had that song on it, and the story just tore me up, but the music didn't seem right - in fact, I just about forgot I had it, until I got serious about putting the album together," he says. "Then we - my wife and I - took it out and put a whole new melody to it; in fact, we had to get permission from the publisher to change it."

The new tune did the trick, so much so that King now says he can have a hard time getting through the song without being overcome by the emotion of the story.

King has had that intuitive, almost instinctual approach to his music from the outset. Growing up in Carroll County, Va., he was surrounded by bluegrass almost from the time of his birth in 1958.

Not only did he have a fiddle-playing uncle, his father was a musician as well, and the area in which he was raised was especially partial to the sound of the Stanley Brothers and after Carter's death in 1966, Ralph Stanley and his band. King speaks with great pride of his honorary membership in the Clinch Mountain Boys, but equally valuable was the opportunity to record two albums with Stanley, which he did in the mid-1980's for a small Washington, D.C. label.

Still, he says, his real start in bluegrass came earlier in the decade, when he hooked up with Bob and T. J. Lundy, sons of Delaware bluegrass legend Ted Lundy. "Whenever you write anything about me," he says, "be sure mention them, because they were a big influence on me."

Working with the Lundy Brothers taught him the hard-driving bluegrass style he favors, with its lonesome harmonies and country inflections. On "These Old Pictures," he acknowledges the influence by recording four songs associated with Lundy.

"It's ironic; Ken sent me these tapes, and I picked out a bunch of songs, and I sent him a demo back. He called me and said man, you must have ESP. You picked out the songs I was really hoping you would."

King's contact with Rounder came through the Johnson Mountain Boys' leadsinger/guitarist, Dudley Connell, who sang tenor to King on "These Old Pictures" and a second Rounder album, "Lonesome And Then Some."

"Dudley really put the whammy on it for me. He talked to Ken, and Ken called me - I'll never forget it. It was November the 13th, 1992 at 9:36 in the morning. I was working at a carpet shop in Galax, Va., and the phone rang. When I answered, he said 'can I speak to James King, please? This is Ken Irwin.' I looked up at the clock right then and there. 'Finally,' I thought. He was giving me the ball, and he put me in the field."

Connell and Irwin also figured prominently in the creation of Longview, the all-star ensemble that took two honors at the International Bluegrass Music Association's 1998 Awards show. With Irwin producing, Connell and King were joined by bassist Marshall Wilborn, mandolin player Don Rigsby, banjoist Joe Mullins and fiddler Glen Duncan for a week of recording at Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Ma. - not once, but twice.

The new album, expected in the spring, also shows off King's soulful vocals, especially on Aubrey Holt's powerful tale of a father burying his little girl, "Listen To My Hammer Ring."

King looks forward to performing with Longview this year. "The material we've worked up is so good, and it's just a pleasure and honor to sing with such great musicians," he says. "It's a good change of pace from my own shows. I wouldn't ever want to give either of them up."

As well as both are being received by audiences around the country, chances are he won't ever have to.