It was Carter Stanley's singing, especially, that captured him, although King was only 8 at the time of Carter's passing in 1966. Ralph Stanley continued (and continues) to be an idol. Through his teenage years King worked on his singing and guitar playing, all the while envisioning the day when he could support himself as a full-time musician. It was a dream that was still nearly two decades away, but a major step toward that day came when he met banjo player Ted Lundy, a Galax native who had moved to Delaware and founded the Southern Mountain Boys, a band whose influence continues to be felt more than 20 years after Lundy's passing.
"Ted was a big influence on me...My uncle, Joe Edd King, and my father, Jim King, and my cousin named Otto King and Beverly Davis all decided they were gonna go to Delaware in the winter of 1966 to play music, and they ended up going to Ted Lundy's house. Beverly knew Ted because Beverly was from Galax, same town Ted was from...and then Ted called my uncle to come back up in '67, and he stayed like two years with Ted, played the fiddle with him, and that's how I became acquainted with Ted. When my uncle passed away in a car accident in '75, Ted came to the ' funeral and told me if I ever got tired of Cana, Va., to come to Delaware, and when I got to Delaware, Ted's two sons (Bob and T.J., both now with the Southern Grass, led by Ted's former bandmate Bob Paisley) who I had met when we were kids...they were pickin' music, and in 1980 they put me in a band, and I really buckled down and studied Ted's music really close."
After a stint in the Marine Corps, King lived in New York City for a time before returning to Delaware to play in a band with Bob and T. J. Lundy, while working as a furniture refinisher to keep the bill collectors at bay.
While at the Delaware Bluegrass Festival (now known as Delaware Valley) in 1979, he met another key figure in his career, the legendary Baltimore-Washington area bluegrass DJ, Ray Davis. Impressed with King's style, Davis hooked him up with Ralph Stanley for a couple of albums on Davis' Wango label, as well as a solo album in 1988, "James King Sings Cold, Cold World."
Still, the breakthrough he longed for remained elusive, seemingly always just around the next corner.
He turned the final corner in 1992, after Dudley Connell recommended him to Ken Irwin as someone Rounder should pursue. At the time, Connell was still with the Johnson Mountain Boys, Rounder's bluegrass standard-bearer for more than a decade, and King had approached him about singing tenor on an upcoming project.
That album turned out to be "These Old Pictures," and the startling combination of King's husky baritone with Connell's ringing tenor caught the bluegrass faithful by surprise. The album, and its followup, "Lonesome And Then Some" were critically acclaimed, and King was suddenly in demand on the festival circuit.
"Dudley has helped me a lot, (he) agreed to do the first Rounder solo of mine, and he sang tenor on that one, and he also sang tenor on 'Lonesome And Then Some', and we used four of the Johnson Mountain Boys on both recordings."
With the Longview recordings, of course, he and Connell have continued to have the opportunity to sing together, and the addition of the others - especially Rigsby - has made it a sound that bluegrass audiences can't get enough of. King remembers how it all started.
"We were in Denton, N.C. in '94, (playing) live for Rounder. Ken (Irwin) wanted to hear the '50s stacked harmony like the Stanleys done it years ago. He wanted me to sing the lead, and he wanted Dudley to sing tenor, and he wanted Don to sing the high baritone. We did a chorus of 'The Angels Are Singing In Heaven,' and it absolutely raised my hair up on the back of my head. I mean, when you chill yourself, you got to be doing something right. It just flipped me out, and Ken, you know, he just had to have it on record."
"Lessons In Stone," the new chapter in the Longview saga features James on four of the dozen tracks. Called by many a "bluegrass supergroup," King is quick to credit the others for making Longview work, particularly Connell and Mullins.
"Dudley and Joe were in charge, Glen (Duncan) threw in a few songs, Don threw in a few songs, but Dudley and Joe basically put together 2 CDs of 30 songs each, and when we got to the studio, we started breaking them down, and Joe Mullins has the knack of pickin' out the right song for the right singer. He picked out my four, and he picked out four good ones for me. I'm happy to be part of it, and they found me what I could do best."
King is a busy man these days, and he's not working in any furniture shops. Florida, California and Canada are all on the tour schedule, some 175 or so dates in all this year. The success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" has been a welcome added plus, not only for the careers of those who took part in the film - Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and the venerable Ralph Stanley - but King says that he's seeing the "trickle down" at his shows, too. Ever the optimist, he sees it all as the dawn of a new era for bluegrass and country music.
"I'm just glad to be in bluegrass music, and I'm glad to see it prospering like it's prospering. It's gonna be a bigger music than it's ever been. I told Ken one time, I believe it's gonna save Nashville, Tenn. Ken said, 'You're thinking too big.' I don't think I'm thinking too big, ('O Brother') sold four million copies. The other country music industry up there has turned its back on the old timers...I don't know what they're doing out there. But bluegrass is big in Nashville right now, and I just feel that bluegrass and Nashville are going to go together well, and it will be a whole lot better than it ever was.