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James King

Three Chords and the Truth – 2013 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

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CDs by James King

On his Grammy-nominated album (Best Bluegrass Album 2013), James King, the "Bluegrass Storyteller" offers his own renditions of classic country songs, illustrating through his straight-ahead guitar delivery and emotionally expressive voice the simple yet complex truth of Harlan Howard's famous definition of country music: "It's three chords and the truth."

Gathering around him some of the best young bluegrass musicians around - mandolinist Jesse Brock, bassist Jason Moore, banjoist Ron Stewart, fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, guitarist Josh Williams - and joined on harmony by Dudley Cornell and Don Rigsby, King anoints these country classics, ranging over songs made famous by Hank Williams, Don Gibson, George Jones and David Ball.

The album kicks off with a driving version of The Devil's Train that shivers with the urgency of a runaway train gone off the tracks. King's powerful voice tugs on the heartstrings in Jason's Farm, a song about unremitting loss recorded originally by Cal Smith, and on the Vern Gosdin hit Chiseled in Stone, King makes the loneliness of the narrator palpable. King's version of the David Ball hit, Riding with Private Malone, captures far better than Ball's version the numbing pain of loss and the haunting promise of life lived again through another person: "for every dream that's shattered/another one comes true." King slows down the song so its lesson lingers in our hearts while Ball's version drives too fast around the song's curves for its message to touch us. With his direct and honest voice weaving around Brock's shimmering mandolin, King brings new life to the little known Vernon Oxford classic of lost love and regret, Shadows of My Mind, and King's version of He Stopped Loving Her Today would have made the Possum proud.

Every song King and his band touch on this album turns to gold.