They call him the Bluegrass Storyteller

My travels and adventures in bluegrass music have touched every thread of fabric in my life. At times this has been beautiful beyond comprehension. At other times, it’s been a horrific nightmare – but I would trade none of it. You grow as a person and you find out with time who your friends are. Your heroes remain your heroes even once you find the scratches in their armor.

It seems like James King has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. I can recall back in 1985. I was 5 years old, and by then the Stanley Brothers were part of my everyday life, and Charlie Moore was my very favorite. My dad came home one day more excited than I had maybe ever seen him. He had gotten the Wango tape of Ralph Stanley Introducing James King. All he could say was that this King was the greatest singer he ever heard, aside from Charlie Moore. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It truly was exciting.

Then came the Webco release James King sings It’s a Cold Cold World. It changed me forever. From then on this man I didnt know was a part of my every day. I’d have Wheaties with James King and Charlie Moore. I’d go to bed and James would sing me to sleep. Through every hard time and good time, James was there singing his butt off.

As I began to play music and become obsessed with it, I never had one thought of actually meeting King and becoming friends. His long-time banjo player Adam Poindexter was my best friend, and practically raised me, so I suppose it was inevitable.

When James would call me to fill in with him, I would get more excited than a kid with a new bike. I still do. Sure I had heard stories, but thats all they were to me. James always treated me well. We shared all sorts of times, good and bad, and I cherish them every one. For any hard tale there’s a kind one, which shows him to be no more than a flawed human being (as we all are), who possesses a truly big heart (which we all don’t).

When I think of James, a predawn cake-eating near Dahlonega, GA often comes to mind. We had played Randy Wood’s the night before and I had been restless, so I got up and went to Wal-Mart. I got my shaving stuff and grabbed the Time Life Stanley Brothers set. Naturally, I had every recording on there but this was the most lovingly put together set of Stanley music I had ever seen.

I sat in the van and listened, and here comes James… hair all over his head. He had forgotten his bag when we went in the motel.

“You aint been to bed have ya, Omie?”

“Naw King, I feel a little restless”

The first CD was playing. James sang a line or two, smiled and said, “Columbia Records….” He could tell you everything from every Stanley session right down to what they ate for breakfast. I had found my kindred spirit. The Stanley Brothers were for him what Charlie Moore was for me, and we were both ultimately just stargazed fans of bluegrass.

A nice couple had given us a Red Velvet cake the night before. He hopped up in the front seat and I showed him what I had bought at the Wal-Mart. The first words out of his mouth were, “Lets have breakfast with Carter!” and so we ate Red Velvet cake and leafed through the CD booklet. There was a picture with Carter and Bill Monroe onstage and he said, “Look at Carter smiling!” He cried… I cried… it was the first time of many that James and I would talk and cry together.

I would sing Little Blossom on every show I did with James, and he would cry. Finally, he asked me why I would sing such a hateful song. I said because I always thought of my oldest daughter when the line about “soft curly hair” came up, and how much I loved my children.

He said “thats right.. you got  little girls! ” I couldnt believe he even remembered.

“Yep”

“What’s their names?”

Being the eternal smart ass, I said “Blossom and Little Joe… She’s pregnant with a third we’re naming him Willie Roy.” We roared… and he never forgot that.

I remember many miles of riding with King. I always drive; I prefer it. I can drive for days, but King was the worst shotgun ever. We would get a few miles down the road and he’d be out like a light. Though every once in a while there would be stories. His tale of singing with Monroe never got old. And even though I’d heard it a million times, he could still leave me in suspense.

When I found out that James was in the hospital the other day, I cried. And I prayed. James has so much left to show the world. When he turned his personal life around and told me he was straight, I believed him. He is my friend, and by now he knew he didnt have to hide anything from me. I saw it with my own eyes in May of 2011.

I went to Missouri and played mandolin with James, and I saw the man inside. Friendly, vibrant and more than sorry for things he had done. It was the best three days I can remember playing on the road. James went to bed early every night, and I never heard him utter one vulgar word. He was playing the guitar strong again, and was even doing some cross picking. We all ate Mexican food and had a great time. His nephew Clay was there on banjo and he was mighty proud of that.

For the first time in a long time James seemed at peace. All he wanted was a a chance to show the world that redemption was possible.

“Do you think its too late, Omie?”

“No, James. Never”

We came around to doing Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore. I was dreading it. My dad had been gone a year, and I was really starting to feel it. Clay’s dad was gone too. There were four of us feeling this song and the emotion was palpable.

James surprised me when he turned to me and said, “Omie your daddy died last year right? February?”

I teared up then and there. How did he even know? I hadn’t told him. He was my friend and he cared enough to remember. We sang the song and never made it thrugh the chorus before we were crying. Friends, it’s real – it’s no act. Those tears are real. I know because I’ve stood beside him.

James, God Bless you. Hang in there. You truly have so much to show the world and share with us yet.

No James… its never too late. More to come

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About the Author

Travers Chandler

A Virginian by both birth and choice, Travers is an adamant proponent and performer of traditional bluegrass music. Based now in Galax, he manages his own group, Travers Chandler & Avery County, with whom he plays mandolin and sings. They record and tour with an eye towards keeping the sounds of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Red Allen and Charlie Moore alive into a new century. Travers is also at work on a detailed biography of Charlie Moore, who he finds an especially under appreciated bluegrass artist.

  • Lee Hendrix

    Travers

    James told me that story about the cake! The wife loves making those for her favorite bluegrass entertainers, and James and you are certainly in that group!

    Got to talk to Randy about getting ya’ll back down here together or separately. We sent James a card, but if/when you see him, tell him the Red Velvet Cake lady and her old man said hello and that we are praying for him!

  • Steve

    Travers,

    This is a great accolade for James and I know that he will love and cherish each word you’ve written, just as his love and appreciation for the close bond and friendship he has with you!! It is beautifully written and it leaves no doubt that it comes straight from your heart! I too pray for James’ health and for the attending physicians treating him. May God bless you both and give you many more opportunities down the road together for more “story telling” sessions!!!

    Steve Carmichael (Sandston, VA)

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