LifeNotes: “The Bluegrass Storyteller” James King Passes

James King

James King. Photo: Julie Lillard King

James King, a Grammy-nominated bluegrass artist signed to Rounder Records, died Thursday afternoon (May 19), according to a spokesperson from the label. He was 57 years old.

Affectionately known as “The Bluegrass Storyteller,” King was well-known in the bluegrass community for starting to cry (along with the audience) when he sang sad songs. His 2013 album, Three Chords and the Truth, was nominated for a Grammy for best bluegrass album. The project gave a bluegrass arrangement to weepers like “Chiseled in Stone” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

King was also a recovering alcoholic who suffered complications from a prolonged battle with cirrhosis of the liver. He died peacefully, surrounded by family and close friends, including his longtime girlfriend, Becky Rhodes; his brothers Andy and Jason, and sister-in-law Leticia; his aunts Debbie Moxley and Nadine Isley; and friends Junior and Susan Sisk, Dudley and Sally Connell, Harry and Louise Rhodes, and Charlie Snelling.

Born in Martinsville, Virginia on September 9, 1958, and raised in Carroll County, King grew up immersed in bluegrass. Both his father and his uncle were professional bluegrass musicians, and during his formative years, King was surrounded by music.

Following a stint in the Marine Corps, King decided to follow family tradition, and launched his musical career. He was signed to Rounder Records in 1992, where he released a series of critically acclaimed and award-winning albums, including his last recording for the label, Three Chords and the Truth.

Among his many achievements, King was a 12-time Bluegrass Music Award Winner, and in 1997, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) voted the James King Band the Emerging Artist of the Year.

In 2014, King was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Alison Krauss sent along the following remarks, which were read at the ceremony: “Nine years ago, my father and I heard a man singing in a jam session between two campers in Maryland when it was pitch black outside. Our jaws hung open, and then we had to search the festival site to retrieve the top of my head. The voice we heard was magnificent. It was so powerful, emotive, haunting, and one of a kind. It was you, singing ‘Cry, Cry, Darlin.’ We had the opportunity to speak with you, and found your spirit and generosity shared the same qualities. I’m so happy you are receiving this award. How proud the state of Virginia must be to be able to claim you as their own, and to give this award to someone whose voice has taken so many of us back to another time when life had such a beautiful, simple dream attached to it. Congratulations James King. FANTASTIC!!!”

Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin signed King in 1992, and produced a number of his recordings for the label. Irwin reflects, “James had an uncanny ability to wring the emotion out of every song he sang, and he was one of the most intuitive singers in all of bluegrass. He sang from and to the heart, and had the rare gift of being able to make audiences feel, no matter what it was he was singing about. He was a born storyteller, and loved to tell stories before, during, and after songs.” He continues, “His love of singing and entertaining came through in everything he did, and those qualities made him one of the most popular and beloved artists on the bluegrass circuit. James’ big voice was only matched by his outsize personality. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

King was predeceased by his daughter Shelby Ann, who died in 2012. Funeral arrangements will be announced shortly.

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Craig Shelburne is the General Manager at MusicRow.

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