James Reams passes

James Reams – photo by Rick Bowman

James Reams, who had dedicated his entire adult life to writing, recording, and performing bluegrass, died on June 17 at his home in Arizona after a six month battle with cancer. He was 66 years of age.

Those who knew James will get a chuckle out of the last words he spoke to those by his bedside. “Dying – this gives me an idea of a new song.”

Reams was born and raised in Appalachia (Kentucky), but moved to New York City as a young adult. As a child he was completely absorbed by bluegrass music, a passion that continued throughout his life. Both sides of his family had members who played traditional string music, and James got involved as soon as he was old enough to hold a guitar. As a teenager his family moved to Appleton, WI where he stayed for some time.

In 1993 in New York, he launched his own band, James Reams & The Barnstormers, and released his first recording, Kentucky Songbird. He earned the admiration of bluegrass and old time players and fan in the Big Apple as a founder of a new festival in Brooklyn, the Park Slope Bluegrass and Old-Time Jamboree.

By 2002 James was nominated for the Emerging Artist of the Year award by the IBMA, the same year his fifth album was released by Copper Creek Records, James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass. He continued to record right up to this year when he released Like a Flowing River & Soundtrack Album on Mountain Redbird Music, his 10th and final recording. It was the soundtrack for a film about his life, Like A Flowing River – A Bluegrass Passage, by Rick Bowman of Backyard Green Films. It is available to view on Amazon.

In 2011 he moved to Arizona following the death of his long-time partner, Tina Aridas. For a time, he maintained two touring groups, one for shows along the east coast and southeast, and another based in Phoenix for shows out west. He had in the past year begun performing regularly in Las Vegas, which excited him greatly. While there he also served as a past President of the Arizona Bluegrass Association.

2013 saw the release of James’ first film project, Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass: Tales of the Early Days in Their Own Words, in which he interviewed more than 40 key artists from the first and second generation of bluegrass music. It is still available on DVD.

The Like A Flowing River documentary covers James’ initial bout with prostate cancer, from which he recovered, only to have it return in January of 2022 after having metastasized in his shoulder and hip. Initial radiation treatments brought some relief, but he was told that no surgical option was available, and his body was only able to handle a single round of chemotherapy. He made the decision to face this final battle alone, and kept the information to himself and a few close family members and friends, even as he was doing promotion for the soundtrack album.

James had requested that his ashes be spread over the Pacific Ocean. A celebration of life will be held in Arizona next month, though no date has been announced.

Always and unswervingly cheerful and friendly, his passing will leave a large hole in our music. We have lost one of the unique personalities in bluegrass.

R.I.P., James Reams.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.