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.
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.