On September 30, 2013, Rounder will release Three Chords and the Truth, by legendary bluegrass singer James King. On this album, King, who is known as “the Bluegrass Storyteller,” offers his unique take on twelve songs from the country music canon, including compositions by Hank Williams, Don Gibson, Vern Gosdin, Leon Payne, Bobby Braddock & Curly Putnam, Warner Mack, Billy Joe Shaver, and Harlan Howard.
Without exception, each one benefits from King’s abundant gifts as an interpreter of song. Most of these songs were hits in their time, some have become standards of the country repertoire, and others are nearly forgotten. King breathes new life into them all. Historically, the twelve selections range from the late 1940s to 2001; emotionally, they are cut from the heart of honkytonk. All, in their original versions, belong on a vintage jukebox.
“Devil’s Train,” from an obscure Hank Williams recording, is the earliest song here, and “Riding With Private Malone,” the 2001 hit by David Ball, is the most recent. In between are “Jason’s Farm,” a 1975 hit for Cal Smith; “Talking To The Wall,” a classic Warner Mack number from 1966; “Blue Blue Day,” which was a #1 country hit for its composer, the great Don Gibson, in 1958; “Shadows Of My Mind,” a middling hit for traditional country cult favorite Vernon Oxford in 1975; “Sunday Morning Christian,” by Harlan Howard, who performed his composition in 1971; and “Old Five and Dimers,” Billy Joe Shaver's imaginative, blues-tinged masterpiece.
It is in in King’s approach to three towering country classics that his interpretive brilliance shines most brightly: Vern Gosdin’s “Chiseled In Stone,” and the immortal George Jones classics “Things Have Gone To Pieces” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” These are not songs to be interpreted by the faint of heart, yet James King’s versions of even these masterpieces make them live again; his stripped down, emotive vocals, together with perfectly attuned harmonies and sensitive instrumental back-up, make for a towering trio of recordings.
The album’s title, as well as its aesthetic foundation, comes from a quote attributed to Harlan Howard, perhaps the greatest (and certainly the most successful) songwriter in the history of country music. “Country music,” he opined, “is three chords and the truth.” It doesn’t take a trained musician to notice that more than three chords are occasionally utilized in this recording, but Howard’s meaning is not obscure: “Keep it honest, keep it simple, keep it close to the bone, keep it real. Make it ring true.” In other words, sing it like James King sings it.
The band assembled for the album includes five of the finest young pros in traditional music. They are fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, guitarist Josh Williams, banjoist and harmony fiddler Ronnie Stewart, mandolinist Jesse Brock, and bassist Jason Moore. It would be difficult to assemble a finer group of bluegrass musicians In addition, King’s bandmates in the bluegrass supergroup Longview, Dudley Connell and Don Rigsby, lend their vocal harmonies to great effect.
At a time when mainstream country music is increasingly returning to its origins, James King has taken another path in Three Chords and the Truth. He imbues these classic songs with the honesty, directness, and simplicity that once embodied the best of country music, and in doing so, has fashioned a new masterpiece, one which incorporates the finest elements of both bluegrass and classic country music.