One of my favourite parts of writing about bluegrass music is occasionally looking back at the great music I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, and giving it another listen with the ears of time. Gold In A Way is how I do it, and I’ve posted another one at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. It is about James King’s great album Thirty Years of Farming; give it a read if you are so inclined. A Google search will locate a slate of live performance videos of James singing the song.
Every once in awhile, I get to thinking about what life would be like if bluegrass was mainstream. And then I wake up.
Still, there are decades of great bluegrass behind us, and more wonderful albums being released every month. With fewer and fewer stores stocking bluegrass (and music in general), some of us may have a hard time finding the music we love. With less selection comes fewer chances to come across and album and decide, “Yup-that’s what I didn’t know I was looking for today.”
Gold…In A Way is my little way to occasionally remind ourselves of album we should be listening to. Today’s edition looks back to 2002 and Rounder Records’ release of James King’s “Thirty Years of Farming,” perhaps King’s finest album start to finish. As we approach the first anniversary of “The Bluegrass Storyteller’s” death at age 57, it seems a fine time to look back at this terrific album.
“Thirty Years of Farming” was James’ fourth Rounder release, and when the album arrived I was immediately struck by the quality of the recording. As well, I found it to be a treat to have the singer backed by his touring band- no guests, no distractions- just hardcore, cry with your head on the steering wheel, road hewn, bluegrass!
With “Thirty Years of Farming,” the Carroll County, Virginia native had again produced a nourishing blend of stellar bluegrass lead singing instrumentally backed, in turns, with sensitivity, passion, and drive. I found upon release and again listening today, that it was obvious why “Thirty Years of Farming” was chosen to kick off the album. The song would become a King signature, perhaps his most universally popular number and one that even adorned King’s souvenir t-shirts in his final years.
King takes Fred Eaglesmith’s tale of familial farming regret in a subtly different direction than the songwriter. Where Eaglesmith appeared never far from making the bankers pay for their heartless business acumen, King is resigned to the fate of the family farm, if no less emotionally invested- as if he saw the foreclosure coming from the very day the mortgage was signed.
The James King Band of the day- Kevin Prater (mandolin), Joe Clark (bass), Adam Poindexter (banjo), Owen Saunders (fiddle), and King (guitar)- were as talented a quintet as to be found in bluegrass. “Heartbreak Express” was given an aggressive Kentucky Thunder-type arrangement. The album closer, “Play Us A Waltz,” was right in all the maudlin ways an old folks home lament should be. “Toil, Tears, and Trouble” featured tremendous mando breaks for those who like their bluegrass sounds fast and sharp. A couple songs closely associated with George Jones, “Flame In My Heart” and “Color of the Blues,” were given soft, countrygrass arrangements.
Vocally, James King was never given to flash, and some might suggest he wasn’t even especially distinctive in range or pitch; he never swooped down too low, and didn’t soar terribly high. What King did do, perhaps better than anyone else, was become part of the song. He sold it. Anyone who experienced him live recalls how he would choke up on particular songs, overcome with the associated emotions.
With fifteen years of hindsight, and listening to his phrasing within “Roy Lee” (an amazing tribute to Roy Lee Centers written by Billy Smith and Mel Besher) or “Toil, Tears, and Trouble,” one senses the restrain and control King possessed to sing without resorting to affectation. King sang like a dog chases trucks- with natural intensity. And this quality is apparent throughout “Thirty Years of Farming.” A song I overlooked initially was “Days of Grey and Black,” a Cullen Galyean song with which I wasn’t familiar at the time. As many bluegrass albums have done, this one eventually sent me on a search for historical recordings.
Reviewing the album for “Bluegrass Now” in 2003, I expressed two complaints with “Thirty Years of Farming,” both relating to song selection. “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” appeared then to be just another song of a man carrying on about the woman who done him wrong (“some of them ain’t ever satisfied”) while refusing to accept any responsibility for the situation. That opinion hasn’t changed. What has adjusted in my wee brain is the importance such a song has in the oeuvre. That down-on-life sufferer’s perspective is just as valid as the next guy’s, and who am I to judge if he wants to remain shattered by his own decisions. I may not appreciate this type of song as much as some may, but no one can argue with the strength of King’s performance of the song.
Sung by mandolinist Kevin Prater, Carl Smith’s “I Overlooked An Orchid” is a number better left to a previous generation- lyrically awkward and stale in theme: I stand by that judgment.
Despite that misstep, “Thirty Years of Farming,” produced by Ken Irwin with assistance from Ray Deaton, completed the James King Grand Slam initiated by “Bed By The Window,” “Lonesome and Then Some,” and “These Old Pictures.” King would go on to release another two albums, “The Bluegrass Storyteller” and the Grammy-nominated “Three Chords and the Truth.” Recording for Rounder, King never released a bad album. “Thirty Years of Farming” remains a personal favorite, and may have been his recording pinnacle.
Originally published elsewhere:
If you know bluegrass, you know James King.
The Bluegrass Storyteller, James King, has died.
In a week that has already seen the death of the dean of country music songwriters, Guy Clark, and the mostly unnoted death of Johnny Seay, King’s passing extends the shadow lingering over the Americana music world.
According to the release from his label, Rounder Records, King was 57 years old. He had been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away May 19.
From the release:
King died peacefully, surrounded by family and close friends, including his longtime girlfriend, Becky Rhodes; his brothers Andy and Jason, and sister-in-law Leticia; his aunts Debbie Moxley and Nadine Isley; and friends Junior and Susan Sisk, Dudley and Sally Connell, Harry and Louise Rhodes, and Charlie Snelling.
Born in Martinsville, Virginia on September 9, 1958, and raised in Carroll County, King grew up immersed in bluegrass. Both his father and his uncle were professional bluegrass musicians, and during his formative years, King was surrounded by music.
Following a stint in the Marine Corps, King decided to follow family tradition, and launched his musical career. He was signed to Rounder Records in 1992, where he released a series of critically acclaimed and award-winning albums, including his last recording for the label, 2013’s Grammy-nominated “Three Chords & the Truth.”
Among his many achievements, King was a 12-time Bluegrass Music Award Winner, and in 1997, the International Bluegrass Music Association voted the James King Band the “Emerging Artist of the Year.”
In 2014, King was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Alison Krauss sent along the following remarks, which were read at the ceremony: “Nine years ago, my father and I heard a man singing in a jam session between two campers in Maryland when it was pitch black outside. Our jaws hung open, and then we had to search the festival site to retrieve the top of my head. The voice we heard was magnificent. It was so powerful, emotive, haunting, and one of a kind. It was you, singing ‘Cry, Cry, Darlin.” We had the opportunity to speak with you, and found your spirit and generosity shared the same qualities. I’m so happy you are receiving this award. How proud the state of Virginia must be to be able to claim you as their own, and to give this award to someone whose voice has taken so many of us back to another time when life had such a beautiful, simple dream attached to it. Congratulations James King. FANTASTIC!!!”
Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin signed King in 1992, and produced a number of his recordings for the label. Irwin reflects, “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.” He continues, “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 was predeceased by his daughter Shelby Ann, who died in 2012. Funeral arrangements will be announced shortly.
I crossed paths with James King several times, reviewed his recordings more frequently, and appreciated his talent through recordings most often. My impressions are limited.
James King may have been the worst businessman bluegrass has ever known, and that is saying something. If you don’t know the stories, you likely don’t need to.
But, damn-the man could sing.
The first James King song I heard might have been “Leavin'” a track off his 1993 album “These Old Pictures.” But, it could have just as easily been “Letters Have No Arms” or “A Few Old Memories.” He loved the sentimental songs, and could find depths of emotion in songs that others never reached. Over the years, I heard him sing live on four or five different occasions, and never left disappointed-even when he was not at peak performance.
During the summer of 2014, I was pleased to hear King sing in concert one last time. By any measure, it was not a classic performance. Noticeably gaunt and obviously not in peak physical condition, his set wasn’t as strong as any bluegrass professional would expect to deliver. The man was ill, noticeably failing, and-if the picking lot gossip was to be believed-not expected to see out the month.
The performance was a bit rambling, but King still commanded the stage.
Grasstowne’s Kameron Keller stepped in on banjo, while James’s regular bassist John Marquess and mandolin player- whose name I missed beyond Ron- greatly assisted in helping King get through the set.
James did quite a bit of talking on stage, emotion entering his voice several times when talking about his band members and his appreciation for the audience. Performing seated, King appeared to gain energy as his set unfolded. Apparently working without a set list, the band members did their best to perform the songs King called out.
“Iron Curtain” was more ragged than right, and an impromptu “Bill Cheatham” almost didn’t make it onto the rails, let alone fall off of them, but by the time he launched into “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” King’s voice had warmed up, and things just kept getting better. Promising “something old and good,” he launched into “Darling Say Won’t You Be Mine” before slipping into the always impactful “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”
King paid tribute to both James Alan Shelton and George Shuffler by picking out “The Wildwood Flower” and “Home Sweet Home.”
More Stanley music followed with “Our Last Goodbye” and his set closing “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest.” “Thirty Years of Farming” was shouted from the audience (I can’t imagine by whom!), and King performed this bluegrass chart-topping Fred Eaglesmith song as his encore.
Few were seated as King left the stage, with the audience showing genuine affection for The Bluegrass Storyteller. Having seen six or seven James King sets over the years, this was certainly not the strongest I had seen, but I was certainly glad I got to hear him again.
I wasn’t close with James King, and he never remembered me from one meeting to the next. I did assist him unload his vehicle once in Nashville, booked him into a set of shows through the province once, and shook his hand several times. During a dinner once, we shared tales-he sharing more than I was able to-and he expressed some bitterness. Still, I always found him to willingly accept responsibility for his faults.
Trying to get James to tape a radio promo for my radio show of the day was challenge. No matter how many times he tried, he couldn’t get his mouth around “Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society,” the sponsor of the program, nor my surname. After eight or ten takes, we simplified things to “Donald.” Nailed it. By the time we finished, James, the band, and I were all killing ourselves laughing.
James King loved a freebee. I remember supplying him and the band with a set of Waskasoo Bluegrass “Pork & Fiddle” t-shirts while visiting Red Deer, although I’m not sure they were large enough for them! On that occasion, and others, I purchased merchandise from King I never needed, just because I knew he needed the cash flow. I know I’m not the only one who did.
All of those memories fade compared to the obvious joy I saw on his face watching him on the Grammy Award red carpet a few years back. With his spouse (I believe) by his side, he was beaming. On the top of the world. Accepted.
That’s the way I choose to recall James King.
I’ve been listening to “The Dark,” “Old Friends,” and “My Favorite Picture of You” this week. Now I will be dusting off “Lonesome and Then Some,” “Three Chords and the Truth,” and “Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys Introducing James King.”