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With "Three Chords and the Truth," King covers it

By Henry Carrigan, December 2013

James King has been plowing the furrows of the bluegrass fields for more than 20 years now. He's a gifted storyteller whose emotionally expressive voice can make you cry on the sad songs and laugh at the tall tales some of the songs tell. His straight ahead guitar provides the rhythmic foundation on which he builds his stories of heartache, sacrifice, and joy.

On his new album, "Three Chords and the Truth," King renders his own versions of classic country songs ranging from Hank Williams' The Devil's Train and Harlan Howard's Sunday Morning Christian to Don Gibson's Blue Blue Day and Bobby Braddock and Claude Putnam's He Stopped Loving Her Today.

Tell me how you decided to make this album now. Why an album of country standards and not another bluegrass album?
Well, the legendary Ken Irwin has been my producer at Rounder for 20 years now, and he's been my mentor. He had this idea that he wanted me to try old country style music. I've covered older country songs like Hank Wiliams' Teardop on a Rose and Leon Payne's They'll Never Take Her Love from Me on some of my earlier records, but this is the first album where I've recorded all country standards. You know, I've been with Rounder for 20 years, and I think this album is the best thing I've ever done.

James King Band: He Stopped Loving Her Today

How did you select the songs for the album?
Ken selected some, and I selected some. I was a little bit anxious when we chose George Jones' He Stopped Loving Her Today. Man, that's the holy grail of country music songs right there. In fact, I think I'm the only one that's covered that song.

How long did it take you to make the album? Did you record it mostly live?
We recorded the album in Hilltop Studios in Nashville. We selected this band of great young bluegrass players - including Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle, Josh Williams on guitar, Ronnie Stewart on banjo and harmony fiddle, Jesse Brock on mandolin and Jason Moore on bass, who's run roads with me for about six years and we went in the studio and did it mostly live. I sang some scratch vocals, but we did the music live. It's like we've been playing together for a while; it was great.

When did you start playing music?
I was about 10 when I started playing guitar. In 1966, I was watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV, and I really liked that banjo on the theme song; I love the soul of a banjo, but I picked up the guitar. For about three years, I drifted to the rock era and listened to Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and James Taylor. I wasn't really playing much of it, but I did listen to it. When I was 16, I started singing in church, and gospel music grabbed me; around that time I stared listening to the Stanley Brothers, and I loved those harmonies. I got to hear Bobby Osborne and the Osborne Brothers sings around that time, too, so I got to hear their harmonies.

Who are some of your musical influences?
Well, my dad, Jim, played guitar and sang tenor, and he taught me a lot, of course. My uncle, Joe Ed King, played fiddle with Ted Lundy, and he was good friends with Kenny Baker, Bill Monroe's fiddler. My grandpa and Andy Griffith worked together. I got to hear a lot of these people play, and I eventually stated playing with Ted Lundy's sons. Flatt and Scruggs were a huge influence. You get a dose of their box set; you think you know timing until you listen to them play (laughs). Man, they were a well-oiled machine. Ralph Stanley was a huge influence, of course. He gave me my chance to break into this business in 1985 on the album called "Stanley Brothers Classics with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and Introducing James King." Three years later, I got to play with George Shuffler on "Reunion with Ralph Stanley Featuring George Shuffler and James King."

What are the elements of a good country song?
A good song tells a story of everyday life. Old country songs deal with the heartaches and sacrifices of everyday life. It's the most realistic music ever recorded that I feel in my heart.

What's your favorite song on this album, Three Chords and the Truth?
Jason's Farm, which was a hit for Cal Smith in 1975, is my favorite because it tells a good story. We just lost Cal recently, and I'm sorry I never got to meet him. You know, if a song makes you cry like this one I'm gonna make you cry.

How do you think you've grown and evolved over the years?
Well, Ken has set out to broaden my music and my fan base. It's hard to survive playing traditional bluegrass music these days, but I'm trying to bring older music to a new audience. I found out recently that a good part of my fan base is international, and that kinda blowed my socks off. I'm trying in my music, especially on this album, to capture with bluegrass instruments what country music used to sound like.

What's next for you?
I have no clue. I've got a band that sounds a lot like the band we put together for this new record, so we're hoping to be doing some touring. I really want to get something going in Europe. I'd love to open for Alan Jackson just once since years ago he was closest to the old country of George Jones, Buck Owens, Don Rich and Merle Haggard. He just put out that bluegrass album that's really good. I'd like to sing some duets with Tony Bennett, Elton John or Stevie Wonder.