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by George Graham
(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/2/2019)
The predominance of computer-generated and/or manipulated commercial music seems to have had the effect of revitalizing the acoustic folk-oriented scene, which is also spreading its influence into some of the alternative, college-oriented music world. The range of performers goes from very traditional to decidedly iconoclastic, and from solo artists to full bands that include banjos and fiddles in a more rock context.
This week, we have another interesting album that emanates from the folk and acoustic scene though with some distinctive twists. It’s by a performer who goes by the name Mean Mary, and her new release is called Cold.
Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Mary James has a fascinating biography. As a young child, her family lived in the Florida Panhandle, though she was born just north of the border in Alabama. Her mother, Jean James was an author, and her father, who was 60 when Mary was born, was a World War II veteran who a sought a nomadic lifestyle. So when Mary was four, the family moved from Florida to the northern Minnesota, living in a tent just as winter was arriving. They build a log cabin, without electricity or running water, fought off bears, and read books by a kerosene lamp. Mary’s oldest brother, Jim, who continues to collaborate with Mary in songwriting, was in the Navy and sent the family mix tapes of music he liked. Young Mary and another brother Frank soon took to the music, and their mother bought Mary a guitar. She became something of a prodigy, writing her first song before starting kindergarten. One of her earliest songs was called Mean Mary from Alabam, and it became her theme song and the name Mean Mary stuck.
The family eventually moved back to Florida, Mary was playing guitar, banjo and fiddle, and made her first album at age 6. During grade school, she was performing regularly on local TV, and played gigs on the Nashville Network and at the Elvis Presley Museum. She and Frank performed extensively. and when she was 14, they were playing gigs at Civil War reenactments where they both became enchanted by the horses. So by selling fudge at their gigs, their mother raised enough money to get horses for the two siblings, and they began performing on horseback, though that was not without accidents and injuries, when the horses were spooked.
Their mother got a job with a literary agency in California, so the family and the horses moved there, and Mary and Frank took many jobs in Hollywood as extras, stand-ins, stunt doubles and the like. Mary’s musical career was nearly ended after a near fatal car crash which had effect of paralyzing one of Mary’s vocal cords. But after extensive rehabilitation, she was able to resume singing professionally.
And that brings to the new album Cold, which is about her 16th. While much of her youthful earlier career involved more mainstream country music, her attraction to traditional folk has been her inspiration in recent years. On the new album, she creates an interesting blend of traditional elements and instrumental sounds, such as her extensive use of old-timey-style banjo, with a kind of dark complexion to the music. With her distinctive alto singing reminiscent of some of the women of English folk like June Tabor or the late Sandy Denny, she also has the kind of profound vocal timbre of The October Project’s Mary Fahl.
Mean Mary’s material is all original, some written with her brother Jim, though it has a kind of timeless quality. In addition to her banjo, Ms. James also is heard on guitar, percussion and keyboards, sometimes simultaneously by overdubbing. Also appearing on the album are Ms. James’ brother Frank on some of the tunes, and a keyboard player who goes by “Nomad.”
The album opens with I Fell into the Night, which spotlights the Mean Mary’s distinctive sound. The song has almost a theatrical quality, though the banjo gives it the aura of a traditional folk song. <<>>
More in a contemporary singer-songwriter mold is Rainy Day with Ms. James playing all the instruments. <<>>
The album’s title Cold could describe the mood in several of the album’s compositions. Dark Woods is a kind of spooky song about going into those dark woods. <<>>
The title track Cold (House by the Sea), another melancholy, slightly ominous piece, is a surprisingly lengthy song of love lost. <<>>
Another distinctive track is Friend I Never Had which sounds like a sort of spooky country song. It’s the only piece on the album with conventional drums. <<>>
Ms. James does a variation on the classic Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven” with her song called Quoth the Mockingbird. It’s a mixture of the mood of Poe’s words and traditional folk songs in which mockingbirds have sometimes figured. <<>>
About the most upbeat song on the album, both in music and lyrics, is April in December, which revolves around the promise of spring. Ms. James plays her fiddle. <<>>
Cold, the new album by Mary James, known as Mean Mary is a distinctive and interesting record mixing influences from traditional folk songs and with her own slightly quirky musical personality. The sound revolving around the banjo gives it an old time feel, but her big, sometimes melancholy vocals give the album a kind of bittersweet touch. Ms. James is also an impressive performer on the banjo throughout the album.
Out grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The recording has good clarity and warmth and the mix has everything in the right place. Dynamic range is better than most.
Acoustic folk-oriented music may seem uncomplicated on the surface, but it has lots of room for creative variations. Mean Mary’s new album Cold an excellent example.
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