On Three Chords and the Truth, bluegrass musician James King picks from the canon of country music to rearrange its songs as bluegrass. On The Bluegrass Album, country star Alan Jackson has recorded his first collection of bluegrass music — some classics, some originals.
King takes the title of his new album from a famous quote by the great songwriter Harlan Howard — who, when asked to define a good country music song, said it was “three chords and the truth.” King, a widely respected singer, put out an album a few years ago called The Bluegrass Storyteller, which had become his nickname. Well, you could say that storytelling is more central to classic country music than, say, an intricate fiddle solo, and thus King’s move into hardcore country was almost inevitable.
King sings in a modest, almost muffled manner, as though it would be impolite to obscure so much as one strum of a mandolin. It’s modesty similar to what has characterized Alan Jackson’s career. He’s now one generation removed from country music’s current tier of superstars, for whom reticence is a downright liability. But this manner makes Jackson’s second-act career move as a bluegrass fan a smooth one.
Jackson wrote eight of the 14 cuts on The Bluegrass Album, and they are sturdily constructed models, weakened in spots by the author’s disinclination to do anything showy, new or deeply emotional with the form. A key sentiment to this collection is to be found in Jackson’s song “Let’s Get Back to Me and You,” in which he tells his wife, “I don’t like the blues / I like love that’s true, honey / Let’s get back to me and you.” In country music, few things are more enshrined than having the blues and being unfaithful. Jackson’s sentiments here may be admirable, but they’re not always the stuff of exciting music — and yet it sure is pretty.
Both of these country-bluegrass hybrids by James King and Alan Jackson share a devotion to craft. Both albums feature impeccable arrangements for mandolin, fiddle and banjo. Both employ the singer Don Rigsby for harmony vocals. It’s hard not to give the edge, however, to King’s Three Chords and the Truth. His album contains that extra splash of vinegar, that additional twist of tightened emotionalism, that gives both bluegrass and country their distinctive kinds of artistic truth.