TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Two new albums come from men in different genres meeting in the middle. On "Three Chords and the Truth," bluegrass musician James King picks from the canon of country music to rearrange country tune in a bluegrass manner. On the new album called "The Bluegrass Album," country star Alan Jackson has recorded his first collection of bluegrass music - some classics, some originals.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of both. Let's start with James King's version of Don Gibson's 1958 number one country hit "Blue, Blue Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE, BLUE DAY")
JAMES KING: (singing) It's been a blue, blue day. I feel like running away. I feel like running away from it all. My love has been untrue. She's found somebody new. It's been a blue, blue day for me. I feel like crying...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: James 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. Here he is bending Vern Gosdin's 1988 top 10 country hit "Chiseled in Stone" into a loping bluegrass ballad.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CHISELED IN STONE")
KING: (singing) You ran crying to the bedroom. I ran off to the bar. Another piece of heaven gone to hell. The words we spoke in anger just tore my world apart as I sit here feeling sorry for myself. Then an old man sat beside me and he looked me in the eye. Said, son, I know what you're going through. You need to get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars you got someone that you can go home to. He don't know...
TUCKER: James 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 a similar modesty that 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG, HARD ROAD")
ALAN JACKSON: (singing) It's a long, hard road I'm traveling on. Seems forever I've been gone. It's a long, hard road I'm traveling on. Lord, I need to find my way back home. I hear the voice, my sweet mama calling, telling me to change my ways. In my mind, I smell the dogwood blooming. Takes me back to yesterday. Yeah, it's a long...
TUCKER: That's "Long, Hard Road", a new song Alan Jackson has written for this collection. 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 - yet it sure is pretty.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JACKSON: (singing) I'm always on the road. You're always all alone. And I'm not always there when I'm at home. I'm ready for a little change. I'm ready to accept some blame. So let's back up to yesterday. Let's get back in love, back to dreaming of all those little things we used to do. Let's start holding hands. Let's start making plans. Honey, let's get back to me and you.
TUCKER: 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. One has to give the edge, however, to James 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.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed James King's "Three Chords and the Truth" and Alan Jackson's "The Bluegrass Album." If you haven't yet checked out our blog, it's on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. You'll not only find out what's coming up on show, you'll find print interview highlights and great staff curated photos, giffs, and videos. There's also a place where you can ask us questions about the show.