The bluegrass life of recording, playing dates, and traveling has come to a close for one of the most unique personalities and beloved artists in bluegrass music. Known for his matchless heartfelt ability to convey a story through song, the Bluegrass Storyteller, James King, passed away today after a short stay in Lewis Gale Hospital in Salem, Virginia stemming from his ongoing battle with liver disease.
Born Sept. 9, 1958, in Martinsville and raised in Cana, the Virginia native grew up in a musical family and began to develop a genuine interest in music as a teen. Having a great love for the music of the Stanley Brothers and being greatly influenced by Ted Lundy, after a brief stint in the Marines he eventually found himself in Delaware where he began performing in a band with Lundy’s sons, T.J. and Bobby.
Many longtime bluegrass lovers and fans first became acquainted with King through his work with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in the 1980s. In fact, although he was never an official member of the band, he is one of only a few to be awarded the “honorary member” status – which was truly one of his greatest accomplishments in his own mind.
After beginning to work with Ken Irwin of Rounder Records in the early-middle 1990s his own fan base really began to grown in response to the release of These Old Pictures and Lonesome and Then Some. Eventually, the James King Band was formed and the rest is history!
While fronting his own band, King led the group to obtain several nominations and win International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards including an Emerging Artist award a short time after the band’s formation and even a nod for Song of the Year.
It was tracks like Bed by the Window, She Took His Breath Away, and Echo Mountain that won over the hearts of bluegrassers young and old. It wasn’t just the material that set King apart from the rest of the crowd. It was that almost instantly recognizable “something else” quality that he possessed – the ability to deliver a song in such a way that you believed every word he sang, with a voice that was so sincere you couldn’t help but believe he had lived it in some way.
King held the first generation bluegrass artists in the highest regard: bands like the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and the Osborne Brothers. Those early groups were the ones he would often refer to as the “real deal.” Unfortunately, he probably failed to realize how much his fans thought of him and believed that he, too, was the “real deal.”
Although the way he lived took a great toll on him both physically and personally, he’ll always be remembered as one of the greats, leaving us with a legacy of excellent music right up until the end. His work with the bluegrass super group Longview produced some of the best traditional bluegrass in recent decades and his last album, 2013’s Three Chords and the Truth, received a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. In September 2014, he was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, which I predict won’t be the last hall of honor he enters.
I got to see and hear King at his best. He was a blast both on and off stage. Anyone who traveled the road with him knew just how genuinely he loved what he did for a living. I vividly recall one instance where he exclaimed “Time me boys, time me! Let’s see how many choruses to Stanley Brothers songs I can sing in two minutes.” Trust me, it was a lot—and I’m sure if the time had been extended it would’ve encompassed the entire catalog.
If you knew King, you knew he was the type of person you couldn’t help but love. In the end we all preach our own funeral by what we do and say. King said it best in an interview with us in 2014. “I thank the good Lord everyday that I put my feet on the ground,” he said. “I love this music more than you’ll ever know and I’ve dedicated my life to it.”