"Three chords and the truth" is how famed songwriter Harlan Howard described country music. It's a little more complicated than that - artifice plays it's part in any popular genre - but as in all art, the stuff that endures seems to hold a nugget of truth larger than our own experience - something, indeed, that connects us in our joy and our (more often in country) grief.
James King's latest collection, Three Chords And The Truth, features a dozen stone country classics - some standards, some a bit more obscure - done in pure bluegrass fashion. That means no drums, no steel guitar - just acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and stand-up bass. (As a musical genre, bluegrass is rather strict about tradition).
And it all works very well indeed. Not only is King supported by a superb cast of musicians (bluegrass also prizes instrumental dexterity), but he's got a voice that can wring all the hurt and all the heartbreak from a hard-bitten lyric.
And there is indeed a world of woe here - these are songs full of longing for home, yearning for redemption, and the aching loneliness of love grown cold. Occasionally it gets a bit maudlin - however heartfelt the performance, "Riding With Private Malone," the most 'contemporary' number on the playlist and a big hit for David Ball in 2001, is a bit cheesy in its syrupy sentiment. And the religious component can be a bit strident - "Sunday Morning Christian," written by Howard with Lawrence Reynolds, pulls no punches in its righteous condemnation of the less-observant.
But there's utter magnificence in the dignity and sheer emotional devastation King brings to classic hurtin' music like "Things Have Gone To Pieces," "Chiseled In Stone," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" - the last often referred to as the greatest country song ever written. The acoustic arrangements, free of the gooey strings and chirpy choruses all too often cluttering Nashville productions, seem to give the songs room to breathe - and King and friends (including harmony vocalists Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell) breathe new life into each tune. Things end on a delightfully upbeat note with Billy Joe Shaver's classic, "Old Five And Dimers Like Me," taken at a jaunty pace with King striking just the right combination of defiance and resigned acceptance.
A wonderful collection that sheds new light on both familiar fare and equally sturdy songs that deserve to be heard more often, King's Three Chords And The Truth is well worth checking out.