James King Carries Three Chords to a Grammy Nomination


James King’s Three Chords and the Truth reinvents a dozen country standards as evocative bluegrass tunes, including modern classics like George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and Vern Gosdin’s “Chiseled in Stone.” The Virginia resident’s sharp new collection notched a Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album.

“My wife has burned up the Internet promoting it since the nomination,” King says. “She’s had me on television shows here in Virginia, and the news media has got it out all over the state. Now I’m excited to be talking with someone from CMT!”

CMT Edge: How did you approach turning these country songs into bluegrass tunes?

King: I just made bluegrass songs out of them. We put that driving banjo behind “The Devil’s Train,” and that turned it into a really good bluegrass song, a really good kickoff. That’s how I approached it: I’m gonna sing these like I would sing them. I’d listen to theirs and then do mine. I didn’t want to sound like George or Vern. I wanted to sound like me on the whole record. I think that’s why it’s been such a big success. I put my whole heart into this.

Do these songs have a common theme?

I’ve lived through some of those songs. I lost my daughter last December in a car accident, and her mother and I divorced. I’ve been through a lot of stuff. I lived the life of a hard road musician, if you know what I mean. I don’t drink anymore. I don’t do anything else. I cleaned up. It’s been seven years.

What was behind that decision?

Well, I went to church Easter Sunday seven years ago and decided it was time to straighten up. I rededicated my life to the Lord and decided it was time to make my life better. I’m a pretty good singer, but I was spiraling out of control.

How has faith generally impacted you as a musician?

It’s helped a lot. Everything’s working out now. We have this new CD and I’m nominated for a Grammy. I guess hard work and straightening up and acting like you have some sense has helped a whole lot. I don’t hang around with the same people I used to hang around with. I don’t do the same things I used to do.

What drew you to Harlan Howard’s “Sunday Morning Christian”?

You wouldn’t want to sing that in a Baptist church early in the morning, you know what I mean? (laughs) I’m not picking on the Baptists. It’s a good song.

You know, the song says, “Mr. Jones, this car you sold me isn’t all that I desired.” See, I bought a car off a guy who sells clunkers to everybody. I called him when the oil pump went out on the car right after I bought it. I said, “Look, the oil pressure went down to nothing. I think the oil pump died.” He said, “What do you want me to do about it?” Then he’s right there every Sunday morning giving his testimony.

How do you relate to Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers”?

You know, I like that song “Old Five and Dimers” and related because he’s just an old five and dimer, you know? He’s not rich. He’s just going through life as best he can. He’s like me. He’s a happy poor man. It’s a good song. He wrote a lot of good songs. I think Tom T. [Hall] recorded that. Tom T.’s a good friend.

Explain Carter Stanley’s influence on you.

Well, when I was a kid, I started playing gospel music in church. I came across some gospel songs by the Stanley Brothers, and I just stopped in my tracks and listened to Carter and Ralph sing. I fell in love with Carter’s voice. Then I started singing Stanley Brothers songs, and apparently anything Carter could sing, I could sing along with him.

I found out later on that that was a gift. I don’t know why, but the good Lord gave me a good talent. I guess Carter was the guy in life I was supposed to listen to. Then Ralph Stanley and I made a record together in 1985, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: Introducing James King.

What did you learn playing with Ralph?

Oh, man. I learned that I needed to learn how to play the guitar a different way. I mean, I was playing the guitar like Jimmy Martin, and you have to play the guitar with no runs and with mandolin-like chops. That’s how you play the guitar like Ralph. That Jimmy Martin rhythm is totally different. I learned how to do it. It didn’t take me but a few minutes to figure it out.

Have any other players influenced you?

Yeah, Tony Rice came out in the ’70s, and he dominated the guitar even more. He could pick the guitar and also was a dominant rhythm man. He was the most awesome guitar picker that ever hit the scene. I mean, when you have 500 little kids lined up around the back waiting to get a CD signed, that’s pretty good. Tony used to have little guitar pickers lined up for half a mile.

Maybe you’ll have the same thing after you win the Grammy.

Oh, man, thank you. We sure hope so, but I’ve got stiff competition: Del McCoury, Dailey & Vincent, the Boxcars, Della Mae. Della Mae’s good, but I thank you for the encouragement. I’m excited about this Grammy nomination. It means a lot.