Concise review published at Country Standard Time, here. Long-winded feature follows…
James Reams is absolutely unique.
As such, there is no one in bluegrass quite like him.
Born in Kentucky, he came of age in Wisconsin and matured in Brooklyn as a teacher and bluegrass band leader. Now based in Arizona, Reams’ voice is one of a kind, and his approach to bluegrass is similarly individual. Adding to his distinctiveness, Reams—for a number of years—maintained two versions of his Barnstormers, one based in New York and the other in Arizona. Oh, and he had recently had an extended engagement in Las Vegas.
While Reams has recorded the songs of others including bluegrass and country standards, he places a significant emphasis on original material. His songs are lyrically substantial, communicating the realities of poverty, rural experiences, mining, and the associated lives.
[Disclaimer: I consider James Reams a friend. I wrote the liner notes for one of his albums, and appear—briefly—within Like A Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage, the film this soundtrack accompanies.]
Within the film Like a Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage, I attempt to communicate my feelings about James and his place within the wider bluegrass world:
“When I think of James Reams, the word that immediately comes to mind is Authenticity. He approaches his music from a place of Heart, Soul, and Conviction that is genuine and authentic.”
As with most things, I fell short within the clip and had I been given an additional opportunity, with hindsight I might have also mentioned that James Reams cares.
He has demonstrated that he has significant regard for the history of bluegrass music, and with his deceased partner Tina Aridas completed the Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass video project.
Reams also cares about the humans with which he shares this world. A career in education is evidence of a caring for others, as is his support of charitable efforts including donating proceeds from a previous release to Phoenix’s Circle the Sky medical respite centre.
Over almost thirty years, Reams has released nine albums of old-time and bluegrass music, including two with bluegrass banjo pioneer Walter Hensley. Each recording is represented within this two-disc soundtrack recording, with the additional bonus of nine previously unreleased recordings including live performances. I can’t remember a previous bluegrass soundtrack—not that there are that many—released as a double album.
As I stated at the start: James Reams is unique.
As does the film, this audio recording documents Reams’ bluegrass journey and development. It works both as a ‘best of’ compilation and as a companion to the film.
James Reams is mountain as rock. His voice fluctuates between a rumbling tenor and a dense baritone, formidable as granite. He imparts fragility when singing, whether a familiar number as “Freight Train Blues” (represented by a previously unreleased live recording) or delivering crushing acceptance of the coalminer’s eventuality within “Coal Dust in My Soul”: “I’m digging my tomb.”
The music is split between red (“Striking Fire”) and blue (“Divine Heart”) discs, with the first more representative of the up-tempo, honky tonk side of ‘grass, and the latter more reflective.
I love Reams’ voice, the way he interprets country songs and makes them bluegrass, and quite plainly I appreciate the sound his band achieves no matter who is featured within. That he has also written several of the finest songs I’ve ever heard simply solidifies his standing in my view.
One hopes that this thoughtful revisiting of a powerful catalogue of songs allows increased acknowledgement of Reams’ masterful singing and phrasing, keen writing, and the Barnstormers’ instrumental skills. Reams’ approach to vocal harmony arrangement is also interesting. On select songs, such as “Hills of My County,” one is impressed by the home hewn, hardcore manner taken by the two, three, and occasionally four voices harmonizing (usually) on the choruses.
The song selection is exceptional, and while particular individual favourites may be missed (“Cold Statesville Ground,” “Head of the Holler”) the tracks chosen are beauties. The unreleased numbers provide incentive to completists to add the package to their collection, as does he inclusion of “Silvery Colorado” from the early, out-of-print Kentucky Songbird album. James Reams’ vision of bluegrass may be rough around the edges, but it is solid to the soul.
James Reams is one of bluegrass music’s unconventional stalwarts, an independent and evocative visionary. Live a Flowing River & Soundtrack Album serves as both an introduction to one of bluegrass music’s most interesting purveyors and as a transitory capstone to an unconventional bluegrass journey.