“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
James Reams is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a bluegrass band leader in 2018. To mark the occasion, he has collaborated with MediaSmith in the making of a documentary film Like A Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage.
The documentary touches on themes of loneliness, homelessness, a life-threatening illness, a career threatening surgery, and a great loss.
As a teenager he had severe and life-threatening kidney inflammation – acute nephritis. Then, about 2002, after surgery for a problem with his spine, Reams experienced vocal cord paralysis and the consequential fear of a permanent loss of his voice.
However, fate dealt another cruel hand when in February 2011 Reams’ partner, manager and advocate Tina Aridas, passed away. He then moved to Arizona to provide support for his ailing mother.
Contrasting those very distressing lows were the highs of many significant contributions to bluegrass and old-time music, not only via his much-respected recordings that gave a new lease of life to legendary bluegrass banjo player Walter Hensley’s career (with two CDs), a couple of albums with old-time music icon Tom Paley in addition to those with his band the Barnstormers, all featuring excellent songs penned by Reams, not forgetting those that he co-wrote with Aridas; the establishment in 1998 of the Park Slope Bluegrass Old-Time Music Jamboree, a weekend event that includes bands as well as workshops. The 2014 Jamboree was nominated as IBMA Event of the Year; another brain-child is his introduction of the Brown Jug Award, conceived as a way of recognizing musicians in the north-eastern states specifically; a stint at New York City’s famed Lincoln Center; Reams’ embracing of the film medium has led to his behind-the-scenes look at life on the road with James Reams & The Barnstormers’ Rollin’ On (released with the CD Troubled Times in 2005); his documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass: Tales of the Early Days in Their Own Words (2013); and the 25th anniversary film collaboration with Joshua Smith of MediaSmith, Like A Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage.
Perhaps the most important characteristics are his dedication to bluegrass and old-time music, so much so that Reams has been dubbed the Ambassador of Bluegrass; the demonstration that Reams can rise above difficulties and come out successful and stronger than before; and a sustaining sense of humor that is still evident.
So, how did it start?
“I love that question … after 25 years you start looking back and seems like a dream. As a child the love of the music just surrounded me. Bluegrass, country, Gospel and old-time music. My Dad loved music, and he played in the group called the Kentucky Ramblers out of Corbin, Kentucky. Also, my Aunts played and sang. Dad had an old windup phonograph and he had collected 78s. Salesmen would go from homestead to homestead and play 78s on a windup machine. I would listen to the radio, also television programmed bluegrass and old-time music. Cas Walker had a television show and a grocery store. Dad would give me a dollar to write a song and sing it for him. And many nights I would go to bed with a small red transistor radio and listen to it under the sheets with an earphone. I played in a number of bands, and sang in church. Then in 1993 with a record deal under my belt with a bluegrass label called Copper Creek Records, I was playing and recording with Tom Paley in a group called The Mysterious Redbirds. I felt I could lead a band. Other musicians love the idea of being on a record. And I was able to form a band with a great group of guys. So, we formed James Reams & The Barnstormers and started playing bars and festivals appearing on the radio and started recording albums of music.”
And what are the highlights for you?
“One of them is that I had released a number of cassettes self-recorded. I sold those at shows. I finally reached enough money to go into a proper studio and recorded an album that came out in 1993 called Kentucky Songbird. It’s out of print now but it was sent to DJs it was one of the first 100 CDs released in old-time and bluegrass music. At least it was listed on a list of a magazine called The Old Time Herald as one of the first 100. This was advantageous since it did get played on radio.
Here is the highlight somehow it got into the hands of the bluegrass pioneer called Carl Story, a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He was working at a radio station in Greenville, South Carolina, 92 WESC, and he wrote me a beautiful letter that I still have today. He championed my music. Played it on his radio program, and wanted to record a song that I had on the album. He sent me his card; he lived in Greer, South Carolina. We spoke and not only did he say he loved the album, but gave me personal encouragement and advice. He told me to remain true to myself, and that it may mean that some people may not like my sound. As a young man with this my virtually first recording it was all rather staggering. Lots of times when I get looked over by DJs, I think of Carl Story.
Another highlight was when I met Tom Paley. We were at a fiddle convention and he came up to me and struck up a conversation. I had sung an old-time song that I had learned as a boy; we talked about me being raised in eastern Kentucky and then we went out and had dinner together. We recorded an album together that came out on Copper Creek Records. I remember the telephone call from Gary Reid saying that he wanted to put out the record. Again, it was shocking to me. I never imagined I would be on a national bluegrass label. Copper Creek was a great record company with releases by the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley. Knowing Tom and getting to play with him was a true highlight!
Then who would think that lightning would strike twice? When I was at a bluegrass festival at a speedway, which I thought was strange, but I just got to talk to Country Music Hall of Fame DJ Big John Trimble, and he said it that it used to happen a lot. I met the legendary Walter Hensley. And I booked some shows and took Walter on them. They don’t have music at night at a speedway, they have the races. Walter and I recorded two albums together and did some shows. Playing and knowing Walter Hensley was an honor and a huge highlight in my life. I felt like family with him. And one recording was nominated by the IBMA as recorded event of the year.
I have so many highlights working with legendary DJs like Ray Davis, Berk Byrannt, being invited into their homes, getting to know their family. I have a huge group of DJ friends.
I have highlights playing at great festivals, I played at Lincoln Center. I played some great venues like the legendary Bottom Line. I got to play The Merry Go-Round, WPAQ. All of the great people that I got to meet and still meet. I get called to play festivals that I played early on. I’ll be at Vine Grove in Kentucky next year. They called me up early on, saying they remember when I played there that people were talking about some of the acts that played their festival and wanted us to be there to celebrate an anniversary.
I could go on and on about highlights, but something I’m extremely proud of is making the film documentary Making History with the Pioneers of Bluegrass: Tales of the Early Days in Their Own Words. I got to meet and talk, and sometimes pick, with many of the first generation. I got to have dinner with Josh Graves in his home and hear stories first-hand. Melvin Goins, Kenny Baker, Art Stamper, Charles Bailey, Frank Wakefield most of the first generation. Now that’s a highlight!
Then to have a film come out about my life and have it be part of a tribute to Tina Aridas and, of course, all the Barnstormers. And it’s not over, I just feel blessed that the music and art that I helped create will live forever as part of bluegrass. 10 albums, lots of miles and even more smiles and laughter!
Oh, and I got nominated by IBMA as emerging artist of year in 2002, and I’m still emerging.”
Hopefully, Reams’ stated aims for Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage will resonate with you, be up-lifting and/or provide encouragement …..
“… we tried to make it inspirational, the message that Allan Lomax said best. ‘The essence of America lies not in the headline heroes… but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown yet leave their dreams as legacies.’
We want to instil in people the belief that your dreams do matter and that each person has a special and unique gift that the world needs, and is waiting for. Your gift may not have an audience of millions but it could save one person’s life, or bring joy to the world. I’ve seen it happen.”
You can watch all of the hour-long film Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage below, or on Vimeo.
James Reams –
- Kentucky Songbird (Leghorn Leghorn LH 004, released in 1994)
- The Blackest Crow (Mountain Redbird Records MRM-001, 2000)
James Reams & the Barnstormers –
- Barnstormin’ (Copper Creek CCCD 0195, 2001)
- Troubled Times (Mountain Redbird Music MRM-CD 004, 2005) c/w DVD Rollin’ On
- One Foot In The Honky Tonk (Mountain Redbird Music MRM-CD 006, 2011)
- Rhyme & Season (Mountain Redbird Music MRM-CD 008, 2016)
This CD includes the participation of all members of Reams’ east coast and west coast bands.
James Reams, Walter Hensley and Barons of Bluegrass –
- The Barons Of Bluegrass (Copper Creek CCCD 0214, 2002)
- Wild Card (Mountain Redbird Music MRM-CD 005, 2006)
The Mysterious Redbirds; Tom Paley, James Reams and Bill Christophersen –
- The Mysterious Redbirds 2000)
- Making History With Pioneers of Bluegrass: Tales of the Early Days In Their Own Words (Mountain Redbird Music, 2013)
Cover illustrations for Flowing River: A Bluegrass Passage by Frederick Carlson.