James King Distills Country Gems To 'Three Chords And The Truth'

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on January 1, 2014 12:02 pm

James King is a musician with a sterling bluegrass pedigree. He was born and raised in the cradle of country music, southern Virginia's Carroll County. His father and uncle were both bluegrass musicians, and had a band called The Country Cousins. King also performed alongside one of the all-time greats, Ralph Stanley.

So King says he was a little perplexed when a producer came to him with the idea of recording songs written by singers from a different musical tradition — songs like George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." King's 2013 album Three Chords and the Truth is a collection of country songs about hardship and loss, revamped in a bluegrass format and sung by an artist who has seen hardships of his own, including poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and divorce.

Morning Edition recently spoke with King about making Three Chords and the Truth, which is up for a Grammy. Hear the discussion at the audio link.

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And as we say goodbye to the old year, let's take one final look back at one of the great records we overlooked in 2013. We conclude our annual series Music We Missed with bluegrass from James King.


MONTAGNE: James King is a musician with a sterling bluegrass pedigree. He was born and raised in a traditional hotbed of the music - Southern Virginia's Carroll County.

: And my great uncle played the banjo and they had a band called the Country Cousins.

MONTAGNE: King got his break performing alongside one of the all time greats: Ralph Stanley.

: I guess that's the most important thing probably that's ever happened to me in my life. What I learned from Ralph was the simpler, the better.

MONTAGNE: On his latest album, this bluegrass traditionalist performs a collection of songs from a very different branch of country music: covers of classic Country Western tunes from likes Hank Williams and George Jones.


MONTAGNE: King says at first he resisted when his long time producer, Ken Irwin, suggested the project.

: I kind of looked at him with a distant look in my eye. I thought: I don't know about this.

MONTAGNE: Basically says King, he didn't feel worthy.

: But Ken explained to it me: Look, those songs was cut years ago and they was cut in a country format. We're doing this bluegrass. You just sing it the way James would sing it.


MONTAGNE: The album is called "Three Chords and the Truth."

: Ain't that a title?

MONTAGNE: King says the phrase pretty much sums up his musical approach.

: Basically, what I try to do is I try to play the chords. And I tell the truth about the song.


MONTAGNE: King says he grew up poor, struggled with substance abuse, went through three divorces, and then a year ago tragedy struck. His 18-year-old daughter died in a car crash. So it was not difficult for him to connect with a Country Western song like "Things have Gone to Pieces."


MONTAGNE: For now though, the sun appears to be shining on James King. He's now sober and happily embarked on his fourth marriage. Plus, the album he long resisted is up for a Grammy.

: It was a great idea. I sing those songs my way. And I think I done a fine job on them. I'm not ashamed of them now whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: James King's album is called "Three Chords and the Truth."

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Happy New Year, I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.