Author: Varner, Marty

James King's new album - a review

Hey, this is Marty Varner. I switched days with my dad. I wanted to write about the great new James King album.

When I saw the lineup on the CD, I was certain it was something special: James King lead vocals, the incredibly diverse and creative Jesse Brock on mandolin, bluegrass veteran and one of the best current banjo players, Ron Stewart, one of my idols, Josh Williams on guitar, and to top it off, Rigsby and Dudley Connell are responsible for stacking King which leads to some of the best three part harmonies one can hear. The Rounder Records produced, Two Chords and the Truth is one of the best traditional bluegrass albums I have heard in sometime. It is so incredibly varied, with mournful honky tonk songs like “Things have gone to pieces” and hard driving songs with incredible instrumentation like the opening song, “The Devil’s Train”. I am aware that these super-group albums are common, but very few stack up to the lineup and the song choices by the wonderfully soulful and sincere James King.

The album begins with the hard driving style of Stewart kicking off an up tempo version of Cliff Carlisle’s “The Devil’s train”. The driving 1 and 6 minor chord progression make the song a blast to hear and I assume to play. Because of the simple chord progression, each break is top notch. Like usual, Jesse’s break is incredibly clever and uses his jazz and blues ability to create a great break. Josh Williams on the other hand, goes for a Tony Rice-esque break that is incredibly clean and tasteful, and even though I am aware of what he is doing, I am smart enough to realize that he is on an upper sect of guitar that only those very special are.

“Jason’s Farm” is a song I didn’t enjoy as much as others, but it is the type of song that James King usually plays. I believe he has a soft spot for the hard working Christian farmer and his daily life, but this song has a great twist at the end that makes a sadder bluegrass song than usual. My favorite line, one that I believe summarizes the song is “The land once rich and green is dead and dry like Jason’s dreams.” This I believe is what bluegrass is all about, and if anybody knows that it’s James King.

The first thing I thought when I heard the banjo opening to “Highway to Nowhere” was a Rob McCoury banjo kick for Del, and I then I realized I was listening to James King, and instead of this song being satirical, I would know that James King would say that he is heading to a highway to nowhere. This song is a nice change of pace from the slowing down of the few before it, even though the songs before are not boring, it is always good to mix speeds in an album, and James King knows that.

The next song, “Talkin to the Wall” is another mournful chunky song where the three part vocals are spectacular. But the real star of this song (probably not by design) was Jesse Brock who could be heard playing back up to James king throughout. Even though the song doesn’t seem like a picker’s dream, Brock adds many tasteful licks in the background that at some points distract you from King. As an instrumentalist, I enjoy this, but I am not sure King or listeners will be as much.

“He said I’ll love you till I die.” are the words King sings before the instruments come in on “He Stopped Loving Her Today” which is probably the best song on the album. This is the one where Rigsby and Connell really show off their vocal prowess and show why James King and Rounder both saw it fit that they were to accompany King on the album. Another great part of this song is Williams’ beautiful guitar strumming rhythm, which would usually sound terrible. But for this slug like tempo it accompanies the voices so well that it is almost like Williams had a career of playing guitar for a wonderful star singer. I wonder who that was?

This is James King’s first album on Rounder records, but I am sure it won’t be his last. This album will get attention from the IBMA and other award organizations. Well, Rounder, you have created top notch bluegrass for us again. What else is new?

Posted:  10/7/2013

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