june 2008

coverGardens In the Sky
The Bluegrass Gospel of James King

A stirring tribute to one of the most powerful gospel singers in bluegrass history, Rounder’s ample 18-track Gardens in the Sky retrospective is but a taste of James King’s rich catalogue, but it’s a taste that goes a long way and, properly, leaves a listener wanting much more. The songs are culled from King’s own albums, from a collaboration with Paul Williams, from an out-of-print Stanley Brothers tribute, from Longview’s High Lonesome, and boasts six new recordings to boot. As such, and for his considerable acclaim as a gospel singer, this is King’s first all-gospel album. Savor it.

The previously issued cuts are a fairly staggering lot, beginning with the frisky, mandolin-sparked Ralph and Carter Stanley gem, “Will He Wait a Little Longer,” which features King and Don Rigbsy meshing in keening, high harmonies and Aubrey Haynie (fiddle) and Craig Smith (banjo) offering rousing solos along the way. The same instrumental lineup, minus Rigsby but with James Alan Shelton on lead guitar, offers another Stanleys treasure, the foreboding “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,” a tale of sin and redemption with Dan Tyminski joining King in harmony. The most piercing harmonizing on the record comes courtesy the Paul Williams-King duet on Alfred Brumley’s soothing “I Just Steal Away and Pray,” from Williams’s Ain’t God Good album—Williams’s high tenor vocal on the chorus adds an urgent cry to King’s sturdy, stately reading under it, emphasizing the depth of the narrator’s shame over a live lived wantonly but only a prayer away from grace. From his Bluegrass Storyteller album, King offers a beautiful gospel quartet rendering of a traditional account of Christ’s Crucifixion in “Just As the Sun Went Down,” and a markedly revisionist take on Christianity’s early years as told by Christ himself in the folk strains of David Olney’s alternately cynical and knowing “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” its deliberate rhythmic lope enhanced by Adam Haynes’s keening fiddle work.

Among the new tunes, one of the most impressive is a King original, “Don’t Worry Mama,” a dead son’s comforting words to his mother as sent from a Heavenly paradise, with Haynes once again shadowing King’s expressive vocal with high, crying lines, and none other than Rhonda Vincent adding a gripping high harmony vocal in the choruses. But on an album so rich in quartet and duet harmony, King’s unadorned, emotionally resonant solo voice provides the album’s most moving moment, on another new recording, Chris Stapleton’s “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.” Although Kevin Prater adds a smooth high baritone harmony to the choruses, in the verses King is alone in dramatically recounting what at first seems like his father’s loss of faith, in a voice so close to tears it’s difficult to imagine the anguish the artist must have been feeling as he sang; as the song unfolds we learn the father doesn’t pray anymore because he has passed away and is being buried. In stark contrast to songs celebrating a dead soul’s arrival in God’s paradise, King’s demeanor betrays only the shattering reality of a loved one’s passing from this mortal coil, without reference to any afterlife reward. That’s typical of an album in which the songs reflect a variety of religious experiences, from the sublime to the personally devastating, and dares to suggest, however obliquely, dark shadows along the sunny road to gloryland. –David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024