SPRING LAKE — When one listens to James King's husky baritone, it's almost like being thrown back a few decades, when the concept of "high lonesome" ruled bluegrass music and made it a truly distinctive musical style.
King is a musician who appreciates that he's different from most of his modern peers. In a day when more and more artists of the genre have worked to soften their sound and make it more palatable for the masses, he's happy to be part of the staunch hardliners who refuse to let go of his traditional roots.
"I've been playing bluegrass pretty much the same way for about 40 years, so it just comes natural to me," said King, whose band headlines today's lineup at this weekend's Sertoma Youth Ranch Spring Bluegrass Festival. "I really don't think I could play any other kind of music."
Kings fans wouldn't want it any other way, and that's probably why they voted him a nine-time winner of the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music's Traditional Male Vocalist of the Year award. To those folks, King's emotive renderings of songs such as She Took His Breath Away, Bed by the Window and 30 Years of Farming exemplify the essence of what bluegrass music is all about.
"I think the beauty of bluegrass is that it's music that can reach people on so many different levels," King said. "I've always wanted to be the kind of singer that brings those emotions to whoever is listening."
The Virginia native grew up in the heart of the Virginia-North Carolina borderlands that has long been considered the true cradle of country music, and home to his early musical heroes, brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley. Although his father, Jim, and his uncle, Joe Edd, were both noted bluegrass players, King admits it took him awhile to catch on.
"I listened to rock 'n' roll when I was a kid — Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and all that," King said. "My dad kept telling me that once I really listened to the beauty that's in bluegrass, I wouldn't ever let it go. He was right."
King's start in the business began with the Delaware group headed by T.J. and Bobby Lundy, who introduced the young singer to radio DJ Ray Davis, who as producer for Wango Records paired King with Ralph Stanley for two well-received albums, Stanley Brothers Classics and Reunion. Since then, King has recorded four additional albums, including These Old Pictures, which earned him a nomination for the International Bluegrass Music Association's award for Vocal Performance of the Year.
These days, King and his band, which consists of Barry Crabtree (banjo), Dorse Sears, (mandolin), Merl Johnson (fiddle) and John Marquess (bass) is among the busiest in the business, performing upward of 125 dates a year. In a few weeks, King will release his seventh Rounder Records album, Three Chords and the Truth.
Despite the recent death of his 18-year-old daughter, Shelby Ann, in car wreck, King said he's more determined than ever to deliver his music to his fans.
"It's an exciting time for me, and proof that good things can still happen even during tough times," King said. "That's what I live for."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.