One of the greatest losses in bluegrass music in recent years was that of James King, the “Bluegrass Storyteller.” He had a way of filling songs with raw emotion that few singers share and a love for traditional bluegrass music that is seldom matched. Since his passing, several artists have released tributes to King, including Pennsylvania-based group Remington Ryde, whose latest album (and the band’s first for Pinecastle Records) is the aptly-titled A Storyteller’s Memory.
A Storyteller’s Memory runs through a number of King’s hits and fan favorites, including instantly-recognizable titles like Bed by the Window and Thirty Years of Farming. The songs are faithful to King’s traditional, Stanley-influenced style, and lead singer and bandleader Ryan Frankhouser even throws in some of King’s signature vocal inflections here and there. However, it’s not simply an album of covers or even a “greatest hits” retrospective. Instead, the songs seem to have been carefully selected and arranged to best evoke King’s memory, and as Frankhouser states in the liner notes, help his music live on.
As there should be on any recording affiliated with King, there’s a heavy dose of lonesome here. The album opens with the nice upbeat heartbreak number Days of Grey & Black, from King’s 2002 Thirty Years of Farming album, which is quickly followed by one of the best story songs in bluegrass, Bed by the Window. Frankhouser does a great job with the lead vocals, giving them a nice country inflection, while Stanley Efaw contributes strong harmonies and fine classic fiddle.
Several of the songs here have been recorded by a number of artists, both country and bluegrass, over the years, but became strongly associated with King thanks to his memorable recordings. One is Hazel Dickens’s A Few Old Memories, which finds Frankhouser strongly channeling King’s vocal style and phrasing. Another is Crazy Heart, with spot-on vocal harmonies and nice banjo and fiddle from Efaw. Both songs have become something of bluegrass standards in traditional circles, and the renditions here stand on their own two feet as good additions to the collection. Other highlights include Old Swinging Bridge, guided by Efaw’s driving banjo, and the excellent The Voice of My Savior, which, with its earnest vocals, may be the album’s best track.
At the end of the album are two tracks that fans of King should enjoy. The actual album closes with an original from Frankhouser, the sparsely arranged tribute Mr. King. It’s a sincere ode to the late singer, making mention of many of his hits and giving a brief summary of King’s life. It’s followed by a neat bonus track – King himself, from his earlier days in bluegrass, singing It’s a Cold Cold World.
A Storyteller’s Memory is a short album – nine covers, one original, and the King track at the end – but it honors King’s legacy well. Fans of the Bluegrass Storyteller will surely enjoy the songs here, while others should find a good introduction to his music. Frankhouser and Efaw are to be commended for their work putting this album together, as well. Though Remington Ryde tours as a full band, A Storyteller’s Memory features only the two musicians, with Frankhouser covering lead vocals and guitar and Efaw singing harmony and playing banjo, mandolin, bass, and fiddle.
For more information on Remington Ryde, visit the band online at www.remingtonryde.com.