Gardens in the Sky: The Bluegrass Gospel of James King
4.5 stars (out of 5)
It’s Christmas in July, courtesy of James King. His first gospel compilation has something for everyone. From traditional to modern, from classic cuts to new releases, “Gardens in the Sky” is full to the brim with gospel treasures. With the addition of special guests and frequent musical collaborators, this career-spanning disc is truly an embarrassment of riches.
The Stanley Gospel Tradition starts things off. James Alan Shelton’s driving lead guitar and a surprisingly brisk tempo make “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn” especially fresh.
But King is such a natural talent that he can breathe new life into the classics with nothing more than simple, heartfelt readings. He invigorates “Sweeter Than the Flowers” just by bringing his own emotions and experiences to it. That – and Kevin Prater’s hand-in-glove tenor harmony — is all the ornamentation it needs.
King seems to be a magnet for great tenor singers. Rhonda Vincent (“Don’t Worry Mama”) and Paul Williams (“I Just Steal Away and Pray”) appear separately on just one track each, but both of them will leave listeners clamoring for more.
Dudley Connell fans have reason to rejoice as he appears on “These Old Pictures,” plus five more tracks. The title track is an affecting brother-style duet that never descends into sentiment, but relies of the rock-solid faith of its youthful narrator. The ragged-but-right “Message for Peace” beautifully recalls the Stanley Brothers.
King and Connell are joined by Don Rigsby for three tracks from the original Longview (“Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight,” “Voice of My Savior,” and “The Touch of God’s Hand”.) With good, old-fashioned drive and high lonesome singing, this band creates great grass without even trying. Performances like this are what set bluegrass apart from any other music.
From the smooth yet soulful quartet harmonies of “Happy I’ll Be” to the passion of “Just as the Sun Went Down,” and the hushed, insistent harmonies of “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” King’s work with his own bands is just as solid.
For all that, two of the album’s best tracks spotlight King as a lead vocalist. On the aforementioned “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” his vocal is choked with emotion. His matter-of-fact reading of the previously-unreleased “Jerusalem Tomorrow” makes the story that much more suspenseful. Listeners will want to stop the CD when this one’s over, just to let the chill bumps subside.
If gospel music is the ultimate test of any bluegrass singer, then James King has passed with flying colors.
by Maria Morgan Davis