James King, whose knack for choosing well-written songs that work their way into listeners’ hearts and minds has helped earn him the title of “Bluegrass Storyteller,” has a keen ability to wrap his voice around every ounce of emotion in three verses and a chorus. He puts both of these skills to work on his latest album, Three Chords and the Truth, an excellent compilation of classic country songs performed in King’s signature bluegrass style.
The album opens on a wonderful note with The Devil’s Train, a Hank Williams Gospel number from 1949. Williams’ version is typical of his lonesome country-western style, and King reinvents it as a driving, banjo- and bass-driven traditional bluegrass number. The song is a more vivid take on the theme behind songs such as Long Black Train, and both King’s vocal and the instrumentation are spot-on.
Jason’s Farm, a Cal Smith song from the 1970s, could stand up alongside any of King’s hit story songs with its tale of a young man whose happy life was turned upside down by a tragic event. Sunday Morning Christian, from the pen of celebrated country songwriter Harlan Howard, has a bit of wry humor in its description of a couple whose everyday lives don’t match up with the religious front they put forth on Sundays. Highway to Nowhere is yet another highly enjoyable tune, with its story of the singer’s fruitless journey to find a place in a woman’s heart set to a bouncy banjo background courtesy of Ron Stewart.
A few songs have more of a classic country feel, such as Vern Gosdin’s 1988 hit Chiseled in Stone. King speeds up the song a bit from the original version, giving it more of a 1950s or early 1960s feel, as opposed to Gosdin’s smooth ’80s sound. The fiddle and bass on Talkin’ to the Wall give this lonesome number a similar classic sound.
The most contemporary sounding track is also the most recent – David Ball’s 2001 song Riding With Private Malone. While at first glance it seems like this sentimental number wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the traditional songs here, King adds an extra layer of emotion and depth to the song, giving it the feel of yet another of his well-sung story songs.
The one song on this album which listeners might have been most intrigued about hearing is probably the one which has been described as the “greatest country song of all time” – George Jones’ mega-hit He Stopped Loving Her Today. One of the most lonesome songs ever written, it’s a perfect fit for King. The simple, slightly understated arrangement works well, and King certainly pulls off the feat of redoing what many think is one of the best songs ever written.
If I didn’t know these songs were pulled from the classic country catalog, I’d have never guessed that they were anything other than the best of traditional bluegrass. King’s arrangements, particularly on tunes such as Highway to Nowhere and The Devil’s Train, are pure bluegrass. His signature vocals are spot-on throughout, and he has support from some of the finest musicians in bluegrass. In addition to Stewart on the banjo, Jesse Brock (mandolin), Jason Moore (bass), Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle), and Josh Williams (guitar) also contribute their musical talents. Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell offer impeccable harmony vocals, as well.
King’s new album is available from a variety of online music retailers. For more information, visit his website at www.thejameskingband.com.