Webco Classics – Volume Two
Webco WEB 6002
review by Art Menius
With his Rounder release These Old Pictures backed by the Johnson Mountain Boys James King became the traditional bluegrass “overnight” success story of 1994. The song “Leavin’” put King on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. He hit the road to a sudden flood of dates a reborn man–sober, married, and out of jail and in control. The settled James King of the 1990s provides quite a contrast to the vastly talented but out of control 1980s version.
Probably that maturation is why King made it now, for he recorded some smashing bluegrass during his first career. He made his recording debut on Wango with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys as his session musicians. Webco Classics – Volume Two brings to the compact disc format the second and best of his two pre-Rounder LP’s. Originally titled James King Sings It’s A Cold, Cold World, Webco, since acquired by PineCastle, released the album late in 1989 only on vinyl and tape well into the CD era. That unfortunately restricted its airplay and probably its sales, although the liner notes state it “sold well.”
In any case and under either title, this album is powerful. King understands traditional bluegrass and possesses the forceful, soul drenched voice to sing it. It’s A Cold, Cold World catches a younger artist gaining the self-assurance to find his own voice after modeling himself after the late Carter Stanley. King covered the Stanleys’ “You’re Still to Blame,” but composed half the ten titles himself. He proves himself quite a competent songwriter in several settings, yet his first Rounder release would contain none of his work.
Like his other projects, It’s A Cold, Cold World features an all-star aggregation supporting the Martinsville, Virginia native. Producer and then-Webco owner Bill Emerson placed himself on banjo. Emerson distinguished himself as an innovator with the Country Gentlemen and Jimmy Martin, before enlisting with the U.S. Navy Band Country Current in the early 1970s. Mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau also did his stints as a Gentleman prior to a long run with the Tony Rice Unit. An aide to U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, Joe Meadows, currently fiddling with Country Ham, toured and recorded with the legends of bluegrass during the 1950s and 1960s. Journeyman bassist Ernie Sykes plays these days with the Eddie Adcock Band, after serving with the Reno Brothers, Livewire, and the Bluegrass Cardinals. Then and now lead guitarist and tenor singer Brian Wetzel works with James King.
King anchors these exceptional musicians with rhythm guitar and a genuine bluegrass voice at home on uptempo songs, ballads, or gospel. The instrumental support complements and accentuates the strengths of King’s confident singing. On the Rounder album five years later he would deliver even more distinctive and versatile lead vocals with better harmony support, but Webco Classics – Volume Two stands up well. For some reason the CD reissue includes the original art work only inside the booklet, replacing it on the cover with a hideous drawing that makes King resemble Scotty on “Star Trek.” Neither that, nor its thirty minute time span, can detract from an excellent collection of contemporary classic bluegrass, happily brought to CD.