James King | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

James King 

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JAMES KING

Many bluegrass purists these days might as well be animatronic figures on some Disney World ride--instrumentally adept but blandly polite, with squeaky-clean barbershop quartet harmonies. Among the exceptions are Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, and now, with his third album, Bed by the Window (Rounder), Virginian James King. King, who did his first recording with the legendary Ralph Stanley back in 1985, is also a member of the all-star group Longview, whose recently released second album, High Lonesome (Rounder), favors collective might over solo hotdogging. He embraces traditional bluegrass's rough, soulful harmonies and exuberant but controlled playing, and the fact that he's increasingly made classic country songs the basis of his repertoire only illustrates why bluegrass and country were once considered the same thing. On the new album he tackles Stonewall Jackson's "Big House on the Corner," Ernest Tubb's "Yesterday's Winner Is a Loser Today," Moon Mullican's "Sweeter Than the Flowers," and the Hank Williams number "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me," and even the newer tunes often reference the golden era--as with the buoyant "I Don't Do Floors," a clever follow-up to the old Tubb hit "Walking the Floor Over You." King can wail with the best of them, but he doesn't try to disguise the fact that he's a man of the 90s, not some broken-down coal miner (actually, he refinished furniture before turning to music full-time). Whereas the classic high-lonesome bluegrass voice tends to be pinched and urgent, King sings with a round and robust tone that drives the music at a leisurely pace--but I'd expect him and his crack touring band (who back him on record for the first time on Bed by the Window) to turn everything up a notch live. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Irene Young.

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