James King: Still More Stories to Tell
James King was a man with great musical talent and a voracious appetite for life. Those two things fed each other and helped him to emerge from the picker’s field to become one of the most popular and beloved bluegrass singers, from his major recording debut in 1992 to his untimely, but not unexpected, death of complications from cirrhosis of of the liver on May 19, 2016, at age 57.
King was born in rural Martinsville, Virginia, in 1958 and raised in Carroll County, Virginia. Both his father and grandfather were professional musicians. After a brief stint in the Marine Corps — and perhaps some time spent in jail — King became a local music sensation.
His first recording, in 1984, was called was called “Texas Lullaby.” Two years later, when King was 29 years old, Ralph Stanley released an album that introduced him to the world. Containing 11 tracks, on Wango Records, the recording is, apparently, only available on vinyl. But King was forever grateful to Ralph Stanley, as he was able to leverage the spotlight the Stanley Brothers put on him to achieve fame as one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of their music. He also became known as “the bluegrass storyteller” for his great story-songs.
King can be heard on many recordings singing Ralph and Carter Stanley’s great song “Lonesome River.” I recorded the version below, one of King’s last recorded performances, at Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival in rural Roxboro, North Carolina, late last month.
Stories about bluegrass greats’ personal failings and quirks abound. Of course, those stories are often the most interesting and illuminating things to be known about these artists. Sitting around a campground at a festival, a jam session, or, certainly, on the bus, many of the these people take on new dimensions. Once you start learning about their quirks, legends like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Ralph Stanley assume added nuance, though sadly many of these stories will never see the light of day. A biography about Bill Monroe was roundly condemned in many quarters, for example, because it told the truth about the man.
James King, meanwhile, wore his flaws on his sleeve; they came out in his singing and in conversation. His passions were who he was, what made him great, and are, in a way, what caused his too-early death. However, former bandmates also speak of his generosity, encouragement, and compassion. A whole generation of young musicians received a major part of their early training on the road from King.
At a festival in Ohio a year or two ago, King — who was clearly ill, diminished in size and energy — sold his merchandise from the stage and then adjourned to his table. A crowd surrounded him. They bought a few CDs, but mostly wanted to tell him about their love for him. After they were gone to hear the next band, I sat with King and held his hand. He wanted to talk about a day in Las Vegas where he had “hit it big” at the tables. Suddenly, a fierceness came into his eyes, his jaw firmed, his voice, no longer weak, took on timbre and strength. He virtually glowed, at least for a moment.
There are stories of King’s taking paychecks to Vegas and losing everything at the tables, having to borrow money from his band members to buy gas to get to the next gig. There are stories about his drinking, carousing, and use of drugs. Yet the other memories — of his voice, his generosity, his love for those who traveled with him, his devastation at the death of his teenage daughter, Shelby, in an automobile accident — are the ones that will remain.
King’s girlfriend and last companion, Becky Rhodes, urged that there be no hesitation in discussing King’s failings. She wanted his life to become a cautionary tale for others, about excess and the risks of the road.
James King cried often and genuinely. During the last few years, he teared up often, both onstage and off. His last years were filled with regret for loss, bad decisions, failing his friends, and for his own self-generated illness which he could no longer deny or forestall. He was broke, and there wasn’t enough money, despite the frequent generosity of his friends and fans, to provide the liver transplant that might have saved his life. Many of his late tears were tears of regret and apology. He showed genuine grief.
Nonetheless, there was one thing that never became lost: the raw power of James King’s voice. He might forget the words, which would become almost a mumble. He might be unable to stand at the microphone, even appear to fall asleep between solos, but when he opened his mouth and began to sing, King could still move people, including those who never heard him at the top of his game.
The supergroup Longview gave King the platform he needed to be at his very best. Formed in 1997 for his long-time record label Rounder Records, Longview brought together some of the best singers and pickers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Along with James King, the “original” Longview consisted of Dudley Connell (Johnson Mountain Boys, Seldom Scene), Don Rigsby (Lonesome River Band, Midnight Call), Marshall Willborn (Lynn Morris Band), Glen Duncan, and Joe Mullins (The Radio Ramblers). Ron Stewart and J.D. Crowe also played on later Longview recordings. Though these bluegrass A-listers made only four recordings and seldom performed, Longview is considered to be one of the finest bands ever.
While King sang of love, loss, pain, and sorrow, he was also a gifted, plainspoken, good-hearted singer of gospel music and songs of faith. One of my favorite gospel songs he recorded was one he could never learn the words to well enough to perform regularly.
The story tells of a grifter performing phony healings during the first generation of the Christian era, it’s called “Jerusalem Tomorrow.”
Near the end of his life, my wife and I saw James at a small festival called Willow Oak near the North Carolina/Virginia border, just a few miles south of the Crooked Road (U.S. Route 58) that runs through Southwest Virginia, through much of the country from which many noted bluegrassers have come. He appeared tired and weak. When he sang his first song, he forgot the words and had to start over. Then he seemed to gain strength and confidence, perhaps feeling the support of his backup band, the Bluegrass Brothers, who are also from Virginia. He finished strong with one of his great Stanley Brothers’ songs, “Lonesome River.” Later, I found him standing alone under one of the merchandise tents, where we talked. He seemed tired, but hopeful. He knew he needed a liver transplant and the funds to pay for it. He wasn’t exactly a good risk for surgery. Less than three weeks later, he was gone.
King leaves a legacy of songs beloved by everyone in bluegrass – “The Bed by the Window,” “Thirty Years of Farming,” “She Took His Breath Away,” “Echo Mountain” – more than can be cataloged here.
In fact, “Thirty Years of Farming” seems a fitting way to close out this column. It’s about coming to terms with loss, just as we’ve lost a legendary singer whose personal life deeply informed much of his ability to show emotion and to draw it from others.
I invite you to use the comment section below to share your favorite James King memory with No Depression readers. Such stories should and will live on.