Masterful Bluegrass

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

That high, lonesome sound associated with bluegrass music comes from the bends and twists given to a voice by singers whose technique sounds deceptively simple. James King and Del McCoury are co-champions in these sweepstakes, with fans of one acknowledging the skills of the other while assigning primacy to their own hero.

While McCoury's new disc is due in the spring of 1999 -- on Ricky Skaggs' new label -- King's latest project is out now and making a powerful case for the latter's role as bluegrass Pavarotti to the former's Domingo.

King's band is pretty young, but most of the members have been playing with him for four years or longer, which means that they have had time to meld their talents with the demands of their leader. The resulting sound swings, drives and floats to the dictates of the tune being played and the concept King wishes to convey.

The dozen songs on the album are selected from a wealth of musical Americana with nary an original in the mix. There are tunes by Stonewall Jackson ("Big House on the Corner"), Ernest Tubb ("Yesterday's Winner is a Loser Today") and Leon Payne ("They'll Never Take Her Love From Me") from the country side of the spectrum -- while Richard Farina's classic folk anthem, "Pack Up Your Sorrows," and bluegrass stalwart Charlie Moore's "Love Me One More Time" help spread King's voice across genres.

And what a voice it is, weeping one moment and pleading the next, before raising up in a flurry of notes to take a comic turn. In later years, this album will be deemed a classic. Get it now.