With some five million people now listening to the likes of Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, and Alison Krauss on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track, it seems pretty clear that the general public's perception of bluegrass has changed for the better. I sure hope James King gets his piece of the pie before the winds change again. Since the mid-90s the Virginia singer has been one of the genre's most distinctive artists, a traditionalist when it comes to instrumentation but an innovator when it comes to tackling modern material. The title track of his recently released Thirty Years of Farming (Rounder) is a gripping lament about losing the farm by the Canadian folk rocker Fred Eaglesmith, while Charlie Maguire's "Play Us a Waltz" deals with the dour prospect of being locked away in a nursing home ("Get 'em up in the morning / And see they get fed / Lay 'em back down at night / While they cry in their bed / It's the worst kind of prison / And there ain't no parole"). King also gives the bluegrass treatment to several classic honky-tonk numbers, including a couple George Jones gems and Carl Smith's "I Overlooked an Orchid," but as a guitarist he brings almost as much energy to a swing-inflected instrumental, "Whoopin' It," by the group's excellent banjo player, Adam Poindexter. The band's vocal harmonies are on the polished side, but King's husky baritone wards off the usual antiseptic sheen. Saturday, May 11, 8 PM, American Legion Hall, 1030 Central, Evanston; 847-251-0574.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Stover.