Some types of music have a longer shelf life than others, and I think bluegrass is one of them. Recordings of, say, the Dry Branch Fire Squad made in the 1980s hold up just as well today as when they were recorded. Certainly there are lots of albums like that, ones that were recorded simply, staying apart from whatever musical and music production fads were popular at the time. Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice sound so young on “Skaggs and Rice”—it was recorded in 1980—though it holds up, and we don’t approach it today as a time piece (at least I don’t).

Further, I think it’s true that in bluegrass music we don’t approach the old songs nostalgically, but simply as good songs. “Wildwood Flower” isn’t a tribute to the Carter family whenever we play it as much as it is just a great piece that we’ve all learned from, and which we can all enjoy playing together.

Other types of music aren’t as fortunate, as far as staying power goes, and country music is one of them. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is a great song, beautifully written, but to listen to the original George Jones recordings it’s hard to hear the lyrics for the production. The soaring strings, the heavy reverb on the bass are distracting, and we listen to the song as a product of its time, as a kind of artefact of an earlier period in music, rather than as a rumination on constancy, life, and love.

"He Stopped Loving Her Today"

And that’s where this new release from James King starts. It’s an album of country songs that King presents simply as songs. The title comes from the Harlan Howard line that “country music is just three chords and the truth,” and many of the songs here were hits and set pieces for specific country artists. There’s Waylon Jennings’ “Old Five and Dimers,” Warner Mack’s “Talking to the Wall,” Jim Reeves’ “Highway to Nowhere” and the list goes on.

Just as with the Jones song, the most famous recordings of these songs were very much products of their time and it’s hard not to see that aspect of the recordings today. Schmaltzy lap steel solos, hokey bass lines, swooping vocal phrases, too much reverb, choruses of strings. Let’s be honest about this, it’s hard to take someone seriously if they are wearing a baby blue polyester suit and an 8-inch-wide tie. Well, in a musical sense, that’s kind of how some of those original country recordings are decked out and it’s hard not to be distracted by all that.

Yes, I’m exaggerating, and indeed not all the songs here are from the 60s and 70s. There’s a lesser known Hank Williams’ song, “The Devil’s Train” and a fairly recent hit for David Bell, “Riding with Private Malone.” But King’s project remains consistent throughout, that is to present the songs simply and sympathetically with a very straight and traditional bluegrass instrumentation, a production style that allows the words and the stories of the songs to come to the fore. And it works. The musicianship is exceptional, and the playing throughout beautifully serves and supports the songs. You won't come away thinking, "wow, what a fantastic solo" you’ll come away thinking, "wow, that really is a great song." And it really is.

See James in the HVBA concert held June 2013.

Rounder Records

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