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James King becomes the bluegrass storyteller

By David McPherson, March 2005

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One listen to the way King narrates the ironic story song "Echo Mountain," and there's no denying that his bluegrass storyteller moniker is well deserved.

His voice ranges the octaves and picks out all the right notes and words to stress, so the listener gets the full understanding of the emotion that's injected into the tune.

The Stanley Brothers (Ralph and Carter) were King's major influences ever since he first heard their forlorn voices more than 30 years ago. It's no coincidence then that King grew up about three hours from where the Stanley Brothers did.

"Carter Stanley just mesmerized me the first time I really paid attention to him," says King. "I've been a fan now for some 30 some years."

Other influences include Connell. "He hit the scene in 1981, and there was another big influence," adds King. Connell has played and sang on several of King's records.

"There's singers that sing from the heart, and there's technicians," notes Connell in the disc's liner notes. "And I think it shows which are which. I've seen James stop a song and just cry like a baby. Now, that's honest singing; that's somebody who really feels what they're doing."

The final member of King's mentors that helped the baritone find his feel and honest voice is the storied Jimmy Martin.

Asked what makes a good story, King responds that it's all about the emotion. "Give me a good story and if it touches me I'll tell you about it," he says. "If I hear a good song and it gets me emotionally than I'll give it to you emotionally. It's like when Ken Irwin played me 'Bed by the Window'...I was in tears, and it got my attention.

"When a song makes me cry and it's good enough to make me cry, I'm going to make you cry," King continues. "It's just a knack that I have...I don't know why. I just know when it's good and when it's real...the song tells me. A song has got to have some meaning for me to record it and sing it. There are several songs on this new CD that tell a lot of good stories."

"The Bluegrass Storyteller" is a balladeer's dream that is chock full of good stories. The disc features 13 ballads that explore themes of love, loss, redemption, tragedy and even a dead dog (more on that later). "Basically it was put out to be a storytelling record," he says. "Ballads are the best."

When King sits down to cut a new CD, the expressive baritone has a bunch of musical helpers researching possible songs for him to sing.

"I've got people searching," he says. "Ken Irwin is always searching for songs. Miss Dixie (Hall's wife) and Tom are also good at finding me numbers. I gave Miss Dixie an idea, and she and Tom wrote me a song about it for this album."

The song King alludes to is the mystery story "Whatever Happened to Julie?" that chronicles the tale of a man meeting the daughter he never knew he had. Other songwriters that King culled stories from for this disc include: Canadian troubadour Fred Eaglesmith ("Flowers in the Dell"), Americana artist Buddy Miller ("The Garage Sale") and folk singer David Olney ("Jerusalem Tomorrow").

One of King's favorite stories is the "Echo Mountain." Not surprisingly, it pulls at those proverbial heartstrings and the tears are not far behind. "It's about a dog dying," he explains. "Basically, a dog gets blamed for something he didn't do, and they kill him...it's pretty rough."

His daughter brought him this sad song. "She had got the CD from another band that had recorded it, and she said, 'daddy, I have you a song," King recalls. "And, she played me the 'dog song,' and she had me in tears, and I got on the phone to Ken Irwin (King's producer) and said it's time to go back in the studio, I've found a song."

King also likes songs that deal with the truth.

"I just like those songs," he concludes. "I like a song with a lot of truth and a lot of feeling. But, I also like the up-tempo bluegrass songs like the things the Stanley Brothers recorded over the years...but, those sad songs seem to be working for me...that's kind of where I've made my mark."

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