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.