The Bluegrass Storyteller Who Brings You (and Himself) to Tears

James King Releases New Album, Wins SPBGMA Award

Even with the right song delivered just so, reducing an audience to tears is a rare feat. But when James King lets go with his sincere and affecting baritone, telling you about a family farm foreclosure, time crawling past in a nursing home or a dog that meets an untimely doom — buddy, you won’t be the only one drying your eyes.

“I go to crying,” King admits, confirming the stories that he’s likely to break down in the middle of his set. “Yeah, it’ll get the best of me. I almost lost it last night on ‘She Took His Breath Away.’ I lose it on ‘Bed by the Window’ every now and then, and I lose it on ‘Just a Few Old Memories.’ It just depends what kind of mood I’m in. Sometimes they hit me worse than others. I fall out squalling.”

King grew up in Cana, Va., but spent most of his time in Mount Airy, N.C., where his parents worked. He grew up idolizing the Stanley Brothers, and after a stint in the Marines, he recorded two albums with Ralph Stanley for a small record label. After a solo record in 1988, King signed to Rounder Records, where he has notched two No. 1 songs, “Thirty Years of Farming” and “Bed by the Window.” He’s also a member of the bluegrass supergroup Longview.

In 1997, the James King Band won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) emerging artist award. Earlier this month, King took home the traditional male vocalist trophy from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association (SPBGMA).

But perhaps the most meaningful accolade has come from Tom T. Hall, an enormous bluegrass supporter who’s known to country fans as “the Storyteller.”

“Tom ordained me ‘the Bluegrass Storyteller,’” says King, 46, still in awe. “He’s the only storyteller. And for him to give somebody else a little crumb of that, well, I guess you gotta tell a story.”

That’s exactly what King does on The Bluegrass Storyteller. The new album features two remakes of country classics (“Saginaw, Michigan” and “Carroll County Accident”), Hall’s own “Second Handed Flowers” and the captivating “Whatever Happened to Julie?” — about a teenage romance that ends mysteriously.

“I just had an idea of a certain couple that was courting in the early days, and they were under age, just barely pushing 17, just about 18,” King says. “I explained it to [Hall's wife and frequent co-writer] Miss Dixie. I told them about it in Bean Blossom, Ind., and about four days later, they called me on the phone: ‘We got ya a song.’ That’s a good story song. Yeah, they gave me third credit on that bad boy.”

After hearing him deliver a few hours’ worth of stories on stage, King says people in his audience are often eager to share memorable tales of their own.

“This guy told me a story about how his brother got real sick and they hadn’t talked to one another in years and he had no way (to visit his sick brother),” King recalls. “He hopped a freight train. He slipped down there in the train yard late that night, and he got in a boxcar and hid. He said the scariest part was when he finally got to town and he had to jump off. He said he still remembers how to do it.”

Sounds like it could be a song, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, that’s a pretty good story there,” he says. “I forgot all about that. A guy told me about that a long time ago. I may have to call Miss Dixie as we speak.”

During this interview, King is on a borrowed cell phone at a bluegrass festival in Florida. “I’ll sing anywhere they’ll let me,” he says. No kidding. It’s hard to say whether the locales or the venues are more diverse in the next few weeks of his tour: Tater Hill Reunion in Arcadia, Fla.; Bluegrass on the River in Parker, Ariz.; Penn’s Peak (a resort/dancehall) in Jim Thorpe, Pa.; Amelia County High School in Amelia, Va.; Coon Hunters Club in Cattlesburg, Ky.; Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Mass.; and Union Brick Church in Bangor, Maine.

Despite that variety, King knows what to expect in his crowd.

“I have the older audience. I cater to the 45- to 70-year-olds,” he says. “Del McCoury, he swapped his around. He used to cater to that audience, then he moved it around and he’s catering to the young college crowd, like the Yonder Mountain String Band. … That’s hard to get. At those campuses, those kids will pay good money to see you, boy.

“But I have a younger clientele who likes my music,” he says. “They’re catching on there. I’m working a few of them over.”