The most off-putting thing about contemporary bluegrass is its slickness. Whether it's the way instrumental virtuosity gives way to indulgent flash or vocal harmonies meld into barbershop-quartet sterility, many of the music's current practitioners fail to convey the grit that the genre's roots are planted in. Virginia singer James King and his terrific band deliver that old bluegrass immediacy even on material that's not strictly bluegrass. King knows how to play guitar, but he prefers to concentrate exclusively on singing--an unusual situation in bluegrass, but once you hear the results there's no doubting his choice. On last year's Lonesome and Then Some (Rounder), King, who cut his teeth singing with the great Ralph Stanley, was joined by veteran pickers from the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and they leave nothing to be desired in their exuberant attack. King doesn't ape old-timey rawness; in fact, there are traces of George Jones-style honky-tonk in his voice, and it's his masterful synthesis of country styles that makes him one of bluegrass's brightest hopes: there aren't many singers who could distill tunes by artists as diverse as Red Allen, Hazel Dickens, Hylo Brown, and even Vince Gill into such a convincing, consistent repertoire. King headlines Friday and Sunday at the 37th annual University of Chicago Folk Festival; fans of rural country shouldn't miss the excellent old-timey Kentucky guitar and fiddle duo J.P. & Danielle Fraley, who perform Saturday and Sunday. Friday, 8 PM, and Sunday, 6:15 PM, Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, 1131 E. 57th; 773-702-9793. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Irene Young.