Can You Help?

I want to let you know about a charity event that I will be participating in this December. It’s called the Cure GM1 Charity Concert. The folks that have organized this event, andGM1 Poster some of those participating in it, have young children that have been diagnosed with a rare, and fatal, disease called GM1. Those living with GM1 must watch as their children lose the ability to walk, stand, speak, even swallow. Their vibrant lives are cut drastically short. But there is good news. A cure may be on the horizon thanks to promising research from Auburn and UMass Medical Schools. All that’s lacking to gain FDA approval is the required testing. I know that you can’t all drive down to Tucson, AZ and support this fundraising effort, but you can donate online. Please consider the Cure GM1 Foundation as you plan your holiday giving. Every little bit helps move them closer to possibly having a cure by 2017. Thank you and God bless.

The World of Bluegrass Just Got Bigger!

Hi folks! I just got back from the 2016 World of Bluegrass conference. What a week! I’m planning to share more of the happenings with you in the upcoming Barnstormer Newsletter next month but thought you might like a sneak peek!

The highlight of the week was, of course, the IBMA award show. Hobnobbing with Bluegrass Unlimited’s Kitsy Kuykendall, bluegrass legend Ronnie Reno, my buddy Larry Stephenson of the Larry Stephenson Band, as well as all the good folks from Bluegrass Today before the show was so much fun. But I had no idea what an emotional experience was in store when I arrived that evening. You could have knocked me and a whole bunch of other folks over with a feather when my dear friend, Danny Paisley’s name was called as the Male Vocalist of the Year. I’ve known Danny for just about his whole career. We’ve played at the same festivals, clawing for every scrap of meat off the bluegrass bone we could get. It brought tears to my eyes and to those around me, to see him stand up there, obviously shaken, and accept his award. And he certainly deserved the win. Wow! What a thrill!! Congratulations Danny…you are an inspiration to us all!

“Bluegrass in Baltimore” makes a great read!

Bluegrass in Baltimore Book JacketI was so excited to receive my copy of “Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy” by Tim Newby. A while back, Tim had asked me to contribute information about my hero and friend, Walter Hensley, which I was more than happy to do and then, quite frankly, I totally forgot about it.

To say I was thrilled by what I read is an understatement, I’m overjoyed and overwhelmed with gratitude to have been a part of this wonderful contribution to the genre I love so much. Not only did Tim capture the flavor of bluegrass in Baltimore, he conveyed its’ very essence. In a fluid style that captivates the reader from the preface to the final chapter, Tim’s passion and depth of knowledge regarding this rich and “woefully under-documented” history of bluegrass permeates every page. I couldn’t put it down. I was especially touched by the tribute this book pays to Walt as well as honored to be included in a work that is destined to be a bluegrass classic and must-have for any bluegrass historian. Hats off to Tim Newby for a delectable slice of bluegrass pie!

The book is now available on Amazon, at Target and probably a bookstore near you. Click HERE to see a video about the book.

Hazel McGee Is Going Home

I was just facebooking with Hazel’s son, Herman, this past weekend and learned that Hazel wasn’t doing well, but her death still came as a shock followed by a deep sense of loss. I’ve idolized the White Mountain Band since I moved to New York in the 1980s. Their music really spoke to me and reminded me of my early childhood days listening to singing from backwoods Baptist churches and church camps. Hazel and Mac epitomized that haunting mountain harmony that is a signature of original bluegrass pioneers.

James with Hazel McGee at 2005 Jamboree

James with Hazel McGee at 2005 Jamboree

I remember the year that Hazel & Mac performed at the Park Slope Jamboree. It was such a thrill to join them on stage and sing a few old gospel songs with them. Their contribution to the music we love will live on forever in the worldwide community of bluegrass. I’m sure Hazel is making herself at home in heaven.

Pete Seeger: Living Outside the Box

“To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of ‘I’.” – Pete Seeger

When I arrived in New York City, I had the good fortune to play at the Greenwich Folk Festival in Greenwich Village, then considered to be the heart of the folk music scene. And one of the biggest hearts belonged to Pete Seeger. Backstage, he was always warm, welcoming, and nurturing — setting an example that I still try to follow today. As part of a roots music concert tour, we rode in the van together to the shows and I loved listening to him talk (not surprisingly, he was a great storyteller!).

We made our own stories, too. One time we were at this lodge in upper state NY for a convention of the People’s Music Network and it just so happened that Pete didn’t have an instrument with him. All the musicians were doing a round robin, picking for a bit and then sitting down to let the next musician play. When it came around to Pete, he stood up on his chair and told a little story about what he was going to do and then he started hamboning while the crowd roared it’s approval. He brought music with him wherever he went. I had such an admiration for him as a performer…even without an instrument he could mesmerize a room full of musicians.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 11.43.04 AMI had been working on collecting interviews for the documentary “Making Music with the Pioneers of Bluegrass” when I got a call from the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY, asking if I would do an interview with Pete Seeger for their Oral History Project. Seems that back in the 70s, Pete had donated his banjo to support a fundraising effort for the folk music community. This was the banjo that he had played for more than 15 years at protest rallies in the 60s and it featured his slogan “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on the head. The IBMM had just acquired this banjo from a private individual to display at the museum and they wanted folks to be able to connect with the instrument through a recorded interview with this living legend. Of course I jumped at the chance and headed off to Beacon, NY to meet with Pete, now 87 years old.  Now, the Clearwater Meeting House where we held the interview had this wood-burning fireplace. When I arrived with the crew, we found Pete outside splitting logs for the fireplace so we could be warm during the meeting. That was classic Pete, always thinking of others first.

I remember when the interview was over he shook our hands, tossed his ax and the remaining firewood in the bed of his beat up old pickup truck and then proceeded to back right into the front of my van before taking off like a shot. The crew and I just looked at each other in shock and then busted out laughing. It was a fitting end to the whole meeting. I’m proud to say that I still have that dent in my front bumper — probably should get a “Pete Seeger was here” sign painted over it!

Pete is still a controversial figure in bluegrass music circles. Most bluegrassers contend that Pete was not a bluegrass musician. But take a look at what he has done for our genre. His book on 5-String Banjo Instruction was the one of the seminal books for beginning banjo pickers and acknowledges bluegrass along with other styles. He brought international attention to bluegrass music when he helped produce the “Folksong ‘59” show with Alan Lomax at Carnegie Hall which featured relatively unknown bluegrass musicians Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (including my long time friend and fellow recording artist, Walter Hensley). His TV show “Rainbow Quest” ran on public television from 1965-66 and brought guests like The Stanley Brothers, Greenbriar Boys, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy to the attention of the viewers all over the east coast (12 episodes of these rare performances are available on DVD now).

To paraphrase one of his famous quotes, “We’re all different, but we’re all singing together. It gives you hope.” When we start naming things, we put them in little boxes. I just don’t think music should be put in a box. Because he embraced American culture and the arts, Pete Seeger is bigger than any one musical genre. His influence is still being felt by generations of banjo pickers across the whole musical spectrum. Though he’s gone physically from this world, Pete will always live on…outside the box.

(This article also appeared in Bluegrass Today, January 29, 2014)

Honoring the Prescott Hot Shot Firefighters

All of Arizona, and the nation, is reeling from the deaths of 19 brave firefighters who lost their lives on Sunday fighting a wildfire in the Yarnell area some 30+ miles southwest from their home base in Prescott. Highway 89 is dotted with small towns and villages, some with less than 100 people. These quaint little towns are close-knit communities. It reminds me of the hills and hollers of Kentucky. Everyone is treated like family. The residents of the towns that the firefighters were trying to protect have put things in perspective. In many cases, these are homeowners who have lost everything. But they have all said that property/belongings can be replaced; lives can’t. To lose so many young people so quickly is devastating and our prayers are with the families and their loved ones.

Coming to a Theater Near You

 

(Click on DVD cover to view trailer)

(Click on DVD cover to view trailer)

Wow! After 11 years and an incalculable number of hours spent working on the film documentary “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass”, the end is in site. Barring any unforeseen difficulties in the DVD burning process, the film will be released on July 1, 2013.

I’ll be promoting it on radio programs and with screenings at various bluegrass associations (with a personal appearance by yours truly for Q&A where possible). Copies may be purchased from CDBaby or at most of my performances.

It’s exciting to finally get this footage into the hands of bluegrass followers everywhere. Sadly, many of the musicians that I interviewed are no longer with us; for a few, this represents their last recorded interview. I am honored to have been able to help preserve their memory, advice and stories for future generations.

I hope you will enjoy this labor of love that puts you into the shoes of the “man-on-the-street” just kicking back and chewing the fat with these legends of our music.

A Tribute to Mom

bluegrass blog - a tribute to Mom

Mother’s Day is coming up…as if one day to honor our mothers is ever enough. For many of us, our mothers were the ones that gave us the courage to pursue our dreams and supported us when the struggle to reach those dreams seemed overwhelming.

My mom was my number one fan. To say that she was influential in my career is like saying Bill Monroe was influential in bluegrass music! Back when I was just a little kid, she used to sing Carter Family songs with her sisters and was always urging me to join in. That’s how I learned to sing and harmonize. The words of those old songs still take me right back to our home in Kentucky and those summertime singalongs.

BW family When I moved to New York City to see if I could become a professional musician, she tried to talk me out of going, but gave in when she saw my heart was set on it. She wasn’t much for phone calls, but she sent me care packages from home so I wouldn’t become, in her words, “a starving musician out on the streets.”

And boy was she proud when I sent her my first album, you’d a thought I was the President! But when I was nominated by the IBMA as Emerging Artist of the Year in 2002, she said, “I’ve always believed in you.” And that meant more to me than any award.

She’s been the inspiration behind many of the songs I sing, heck, she’s the reason that I even sing at all. Just last year, I took her a big bouquet of spring flowers for Mother’s Day and her whole face lit up. She so loved bright, pretty flowers. This year, she’s gone. I know she’s still my number one fan up in heaven and that she’s now able to make it to every show. But, I still miss hearing her voice and that feeling of love that comes from a mother’s hug.

Dot Reams

Dorothy Reams 1924 ~ 2013

 

My Old Kentucky Home!

 

James Reams with Gabrielle Gray, Director of IBMM

James Reams with Gabrielle Gray, Director of IBMM

Just got back from a wonderful trip to Kentucky for a presentation to the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM) in Owensboro — my home away from home!  A plaque honoring my partner, Tina Aridas (who passed away in 2011), will be displayed in the museum’s library. My friend and director of the museum, Gabrielle Gray, told me that Tina was instrumental in getting the library established at the museum by donating a substantial number of books to get it started. And I brought one more volume to add to the collection, a limited edition of America’s Music: Bluegrass.

As a former teacher, I was excited to hear more about what IBMM is doing in the community to promote our music. Since 2003, they have been running the Bluegrass in the Schools (BITS) program that introduces over 8,000 elementary students at 24 schools to the world of bluegrass music. And, several hundred residents of all ages participate in the Saturday Lessons Program that provides a free instrument loan and modestly priced lessons from professional bluegrass instructors. These are truly remarkable programs that bring together young and old, helping to foster a love of this music and the desire to keep it going. I wish more programs like this were available. Check out their website and see how it’s done!

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn

While in Owensboro, I was amazed at all the new development along the river front with playgrounds, brick sidewalks, world-class hotels and restaurants. And speaking of restaurants, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to sample some of Kentucky’s best barbeque at Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. If you’re ever in Owensboro, be sure to check out this family owned business. You’ll see why I was smacking my lips and licking my fingers. We don’t get this kind of barbeque in Phoenix!

While Gabrielle and I chowed down on some melt-in-your-mouth BBQ mutton (an Owensboro speciality) with all the fixin’s, she told me that the museum has gotten so big that they are looking at relocating to a larger facility. Although I have a lot of fond memories of the current museum, I know that bigger is better in this case! More room to preserve precious archives and memorabilia, better equipped music rooms for the Lessons Program, a larger research library…I could see that faraway look in her eyes as she described her vision for the future. And all this is in her grasp with the current matching grant challenge from the KY Arts Partnerships. I’ve made a little extra donation to the museum to help out and encourage bluegrass lovers everywhere to pitch in too! Click here to donate.

International Bluegrass Music Museum

Int’l Bluegrass Music Museum

Remembering Tina – IBMM Presentation

 

James Reams Partner Tina Aridas

Tina Aridas

I can’t say it was love at first sight, more like love at first word between my partner of 15 years, Tina Aridas, and bluegrass. When she passed away from cancer in early 2011, it sent shockwaves through the bluegrass community; even Bluegrass Today carried an article.

Gabrielle Gray, Director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM) in Owensboro, KY came to her memorial service and delivered part of the eulogy. She noted that one of Tina’s amazing talents was her ability to reach people from different parts of the country and even the world, connecting them through music and her written words. And this February, a special plaque that recognizes Tina’s work and effort in promoting and preserving bluegrass as a fine slice of the American music pie will be presented to the IBMM.

Her love of the written word gave her a deeper appreciation for the story songs and folk poetry that abound in bluegrass and oldtime music. The wordplay and interchange of ideas spurred her to start writing lyrics for songs and to encourage me to write original material. We started on a journey of collaboration with these new songs that brought real excitement as we contributed to the tradition that we loved.

Tina’s introduction to bluegrass and oldtime music was through the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour television program. She would wait anxiously to see John Hartford play his banjo with Glen Campbell. And she shared this love of music with her brother as they were growing up.

When I first met Tina, we had a lot of “dates” at the Good Coffeehouse Music Parlor (GCMP) in Brooklyn. I booked shows and did sound so you would find me most Fridays crawling around the floor at GCMP. Tina and I would share that time together as we got to know each other. We were there so much that I even overheard a child commenting to his parents as they walked by, “Look Mommy, that’s James and Tina’s house.”

I was already playing at the GCMP, but Tina took it up a notch.  She started doing press releases and sending emails that helped develop a loyal following for bluegrass music in the Brooklyn area and beyond. Since we already had our foot in the door at GCMP, we were able to bring in some great acts like The Sullivan Family, the amazing flat pick genius of David Greer, and White Mountain Bluegrass to name a few. Over the course of 20 years, this venue became the  “go to” place for roots music in NYC featuring a virtual Who’s Who of music performers.

As guests showed up at our real house to play music or record, Tina developed a true passion for the genre…some might say she was a bit obsessed with bluegrass! Tom Paley teamed up with Bill Christophersen and me as the Mysterious Redbirds to release a recording in 1998 on a national record label thanks to her efforts.  During the years that followed Tracy Schwarz & Ginny Hawker, Alan Jabbour, John Cohen, Walter Hensley, Jon Glick, David Grier, Enoch and Marge Sullivan, Alice Gerrard, John Herald and many others came to call and play.

I remember the turning point in my career. On the way home from a gig, the van broke down. While stranded in Massachusetts, Tina and I went out for a walk and passed this church. On the sign outside the topic for the sermon on Sunday was posted. All lit up at night that sign from God said “Build a Better Barn.” She looked at me and said, “That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to build a better band.” From that point on we concentrated on creating a regional band that would have a national reputation. With the release of our 2011 CD, One Foot in the Honky Tonk, we did just that — making top ten lists and having a single that charted nationally.

As our relationship grew closer, she became further immersed in the history of bluegrass. A voracious reader, she soaked up stories of the Carter family, Bill Monroe, and Stanley Brothers like a sponge and, in the process, collected quite a library of books and literature on the subject, many have been donated to the IBMM library. As a masterful writer, she chronicled this knowledge; writing liner notes, newspaper articles, comments on websites, any place she could get a word in edgewise!

She became a real voice for the Northeast and its contribution to bluegrass music; her name is still recognized by every major writer in the genre. Her writing about Walter Hensley in the liner notes for our CD “James Reams, Walter Hensley, and the Barons of Bluegrass” was described as history-making by one reviewer and appeared on a Washington DC bluegrass website as well as being included in the book “True Vine” by Mike Seeger. I was especially touched when I received a copy of Mike Seeger’s book and read so many quotes credited to Tina.

Along the way she encouraged me to fulfill a dream of capturing some of the remaining pioneers of bluegrass on film. She was the instigator of behind-the-scenes interviews with such legends as Jimmy Martin, Kenny Baker, and Bobby Osborne. Then she helped put together the first preview of the film that was included with our CD “Troubled Times” in 2005. The IBMA even used this preview of the film as part of their Bluegrass in the Schools curriculum a few years ago. This program encourages teachers nationwide (elementary through university levels) to become more “bluegrass aware.” I’m happy to say that in 2013, the fruit of her labors will be realized with the release of the DVD documentary, “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass Music” which will coincide with James Reams & The Barnstormers 20th Anniversary Coast-to-Coast Celebration tour.

Tina was instrumental in creating a real community of bluegrass and traditional music. She helped co-found the NY Bluegrass-Oldtime Discussion Group on Yahoo that allowed people to communicate their love of roots music. After the twin towers fell WKCR, a local radio station that announced bluegrass and oldtime music events, stopped for a while because their broadcasting antenna was on top of one of the towers. So the NY Bluegrass-Oldtime discussion group became even more active and helped bluegrass music continue and grow in the City during WKCR’s absence. When anyone in the industry needed help promoting a show in NYC, Tina was usually called in. Ken Irwin of Rounder Records and Del McCoury, to name a couple, used her amazing talent for communicating.

Tina and James at Capital Records

Tina and James at Capital Theater

And she was the driving force behind James Reams & The Barnstormers, relentlessly pursuing record label deals and prestigious venues to showcase our talents. I often told her that I felt like a grasshopper on a plow. She was the plow and I was the grasshopper just sittin’ there lookin’ like I was kickin’ up all that dust. Now I’m having to learn how to be the plow and, I’ll tell you, I’d a whole lot rather go back to being just a grasshopper!

After her death, I received hundreds of emails about Tina from fans, DJs, presidents of bluegrass associations, and owners of record companies — so many stories about her kindness, sense of humor, and insights — written words now honoring her. She believed passionately in bluegrass music and in the people who made it. I can just imagine her encouraging those harp players in heaven to take up the banjo and play along with Charlie Poole.