Remembering James King 

James KingAs previously reported, James King, known by his nickname The Bluegrass Storyteller, passed away on May 19, 2016, after a long battle with liver disease. He was 57 years of age.

Songs such as Bed by the Window, Echo Mountain, Coldest Day of Winter, Just as the Sun Went Down, Jerusalem Tomorrow, She Took His Breath Away, Thirty Years of Farming, Garage Sale, A Few Old Memories and Second Hand Flowers are enhanced with King’s well of emotion that makes each story more vivid and deeply personalised.

Born in Martinsville, Virginia, King’s early musical interests came in the form of rock icons Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Steppenwolf. This was so despite the influence of his father, a fiddler, and his uncle, who was a bluegrass musician of note also.

Then in his mid-teens James Elroy King heard the Stanley Brothers for the first time and became a devoted follower of their music from then on.

After high school King served briefly in U.S. Marine Corps. Upon his return to civilian life he settled in Wilmington, Delaware, where he teamed up with T.J. and Bobby Lundy, whose father, Ted, was another influence on King.

The Lundy brothers introduced King to legendary bluegrass DJ Ray Davis, who arranged for King to record with Ralph Stanley releasing two albums with recordings taken from his basement tapes; Stanley Brothers Classics (better known as Introducing James King, released on LP in 1986, CD in 1997) and Reunion (also with George Shuffler) (only on CD, released in 1997), on his Wango label.

In July 1988 he cut 10 sides for Webco; James King (Sings) It’s a Cold, Cold World (WLPS 0131), for the first album release in his own name.

For a brief period during the very early 1990s King was a member of Big Country Bluegrass.

In about 1985 King signed with Rounder Records, for whom he would record for the remainder of his life.

The Bluegrass Storyteller, so-named it is thought by Dixie Hall, recorded two albums, These Old Pictures and Lonesome and Then Some utilizing members of the Johnson Mountain Boys to back him. As he put together his own band he recorded Bed by the Window, Thirty Years of Farming, Bluegrass Storyteller, Gardens in the Sky and, finally, Three Chords and the Truth, with five of the top bluegrass pickers of the time.

King played a strong vocal part in the super-group Longview, working on four albums, Longview, High Lonesome, Lessons in Stone and Deep in the Mountains.

James King was never afraid to show his feelings while singing a particularly emotional song, and his friends are unanimous in their feeling a great loss by King’s passing.

Dudley Connell, who introduced King to Ken Irwin of Rounder Records, shared the stage with King on several occasions …

James King and Dudley Connell sing together during the Hazel Dickens tribute show at the 2012 IBMA World of Bluegrass convention - photo byTed Lehmann“I will always remember James King as a singer that could tell a story, having the unique ability to make you believe the story he was telling in song.  That’s an unusual and beautiful gift.  James King was the truth and he will leave huge hole in the bluegrass music community. He will be missed.”

Gary B Reid shares a little-known piece of information and speaks of getting to know King well from 2014 onwards ………

“James King and I go back a ways. Years ago, he approached me about doing a recording project with him. We talked about it some, but… shortly afterwards, Rounder expressed an interest in him. James felt conflicted at the time. As he had talked with me first, he felt he owed it to me to do a project. I told him I felt that Rounder could do a lot more for his career than I could, and that he should take the opportunity. I didn’t really think that much more about it, but… over the years James expressed his gratitude on numerous occasions.

More recently, though, James moved to Salem, Virginia — about a half hour drive from me — a few years ago. Given our proximity to each other, he began buying merchandise from me that he could re-sell on his show dates. Then, two years ago, when things sorta fell apart for him health-wise, I became involved in some fundraising efforts to help with his medical expenses.

I got to know James a lot better during the last two years of his life. He helped me some with my Stanley Brothers book, mapping out the vocal parts to a number of the songs. On various phone calls, and in person, we would talk about our mutual love for the music of the Stanley Brothers. James rated Ralph as the greatest tenor singer that ever lived, and he held Carter Stanley in similar high esteem. James was a very emotional person, and would many times break into tears when talking about the music of the Stanley Brothers.

Even though Ray Davis disowned him for most of the last decade, James continued to have a deep affection and appreciation for his talents as well.”

In this video King is assisted by Rhonda Vincent & the Rage as he sings a Stanley Brothers’ classic, the mournful Lonesome River …..


Promoter Chip Covington is another who did much to help King by playing a significant part in fund-raising to help him with medical expenses and the loss of income while he recuperated from surgery in 2014 …..

“As a promoter, I’ve worked with many artists and genres over the years, but there will be only one James King. James was a firecracker on stage and every song was an explosion of personal testament. James jumped onto every chance to sing and every stage with total passion. The true art of James King was his humility and his deep sense of community. He made every listener feel like they are part of bluegrass history and mountains of Virginia. James made us belong, together.”

Marshall Wilborn, was the bass player in the super-group Longview ……

“James was a real singer.  He had power, tone, and big heart, and in particular, had quite a love and feeling for the Stanley Brothers music. I don’t think he had an ear or feeling for vocal ornaments. He sang in a plain way, but with him the song ran deep, and he delivered; told the story — most believably.”

Don Rigbsy is another member of Longview. He helped King with the recording of King’s last album Three Chords and the Truth (Rounder) also ……

James King and Don Rigsby at the Red Barn Convention Center in Winchester, OH (5/12/2012)“James King was an emotionally charged singer who always put himself in the middle of his songs. His tears were real and the knocks and bruises he obtained in life came through in his performances. He was my friend and I was his. He made people happy as he passed through this world when he sang. I only wish he had been able to get a hold of the habits that ultimately took his life. But the whole package was what you got with James Elroy King. If he hurt anyone, it was not nearly as much as he hurt himself. I will always treasure my chances to sing with him and his stories and see the twinkle in his eyes when he had the crowd or the group on the edge of their seats with a powerful song or a great story. He told me and many others he’d made peace with God and that’s good enough for me. He left this world owing me nothing but I owe him for making me a better singer and giving me more confidence as a performer and making my life better.”

This second video captures James King, Dudley Connell and Don Rigsby singing the IBMA’s Song of the Year for 1998 (composer Ed Hamilton), Lonesome Old Home from Longview’s debut album …..


Ken Irwin spoke passionately about King in Rounder Records’ press release sharing news of King’s passing ……

“James had an uncanny ability to wring the emotion out of every song he sang, and he was one of the most intuitive singers in all of bluegrass. He sang from and to the heart, and had the rare gift of being able to make audiences feel, no matter what it was he was singing about.  He was a born storyteller, and loved to tell stories before, during, and after songs. His love of singing and entertaining came through in everything he did, and those qualities made him one of the most popular and beloved artists on the bluegrass circuit. James’ big voice was only matched by his outsize personality. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

King played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1996 and the following year he won the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award.

He was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.