This piece, which started as a series of questions for James Reams from Richard Thompson, is in its final form a contribution from Kim Crecca. We hope to include similar artist profiles in the coming months
Originally from southeastern Kentucky, James Reams arrived at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1982, carrying two cardboard boxes and two pairs of work shoes—looking for a better life, having left behind a dead-end job in an agricultural supply store. At first, in his scramble to survive, he didn’t play much music. But when he did, those who heard his authentic Kentucky mountain sound encouraged him to play more.
Before long, Reams started producing albums beginning with his first release Kentucky Songbird in 1994, followed by The Blackest Crow and The Mysterious Redbirds in 2000. All three albums featured long-time friend Bill Christophersen and a collaboration with Tom Paley from the New Lost City Ramblers.
Reams formed the Barnstormers in 1993 because, as he puts it, “I like hard-core bluegrass that features innovation. This isn’t museum music, it’s a living, breathing creation. I wanted to sing and play with other musicians that felt as I did, that were as dedicated and committed to making music that moved people.”
The first James Reams & the Barmstormers album, Barnstormin’, featured Kenny Kosek on fiddle and was released in 2001 (and is now available as a free download from Noise Trade). This album includes Carl Hayano on bass, Mickey McGuire on banjo, and Mark Farrell on mandolin.
In 2005, James Reams & the Barnstormers cut loose with the CD Troubled Times which included a feature length documentary of the band entitled Rollin’ On and a preview of the DVD documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass that is coming out later this year. Sadly, this was the last CD for Hayano and McGuire due to health issues and scheduling conflicts.
Wrapping up an impressive anthology of music is the 2011 release of One Foot in the Honky Tonk which made two Top 10 CDs of 2011 lists and included a single that charted nationally. This CD features two new Barnstormers, Doug Nicholaisen on banjo and Nick Sullivan on upright bass. Reams, Farrell and Nicholaisen contributed all the original material for this album. This group continues to perform at festivals on the east coast.
Teaming up with renowned banjo player, the late Walter Hensley, resulted in the release of James Reams, Walter Hensley & the Barons of Bluegrass in 2002, an album that received an IBMA nomination for Recording Event of the Year; the same year that Reams received the IBMA nomination as Emerging Artist of the Year. Combining talents with Walter Hensley again in 2006 produced the album Wild Card that had reviewers singing Reams ‘ praise. “… another fine collaboration from James Reams and Walter Hensley. The result is an album full of spirited, traditional bluegrass music. James Reams’ solid rhythm guitar and strong vocals lend a solid foundation to Hensley’s clean and tasteful banjo picking…” said R. Steelman of Bluegrass Music Profiles.
Having recently relocated to the Phoenix area, Reams has put together a fine group of musicians out west including:
- Billy Parker, who has played with mandolin masters like Bill Monroe and David Grisman. He has developed a confident and spirited approach to seamlessly move between the rapid-fire bluegrass tunes and more soulful roots music melodies.
- Tyler Wells brings his youth and vitality to the band and is a hot banjo player having won numerous competitions including Rockygrass and Huck Finn and finishing as one of the top five finalists in the national banjo championship in 2010.
- Ted Sistrunk has studied under some of the best bass players in the USA and brings his ear for melodic lines, intuitive bass stylings and a solid groove to the Barnstormers.
Once again Reams has teamed up with a well-known artist, this time it is Blaine Sprouse, the legendary bluegrass fiddler renowned for his work with Jim and Jess McReynolds as well as his years on the Grand Ole Opry. In 2014, Reams plans to release a CD featuring both west and east coast band members and is currently working on original material for that album. In the meantime, he’s touring coast-to-coast and putting together an EP of seldom heard Christmas songs for release this fall.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary, James Reams & the Barnstormers are starting a coast-to-coast tour beginning in Yuma, Arizona, today. Reams will be visiting both the west coast and the east coast Barnstormers at venues such as:
- January 26: Bluegrass in the Park, Yuma, Arizona
- March 9: Redwood Bluegrass Associates, Mountainview, California
- March 10: Sonoma County Bluegrass Festival, Sebastopol, California
- April 6: Tempe Festival of the Arts, Tempe, Arizona
- April 19-20: Durango Meltdown, Durango, Colorado
- April 27-28: Bluegrass in Benson, Benson, Arizona
- May 4: Hi-Country Bluegrass Festival, Cordes Junction, Arizona
- June 7: Southwest Pickers, Albuquerque, New Mexico
- June 8: Holly Bluegrass Festival, Holly, Colorado
- June 22-23: Prescott Bluegrass Festival, Prescott, Arizona
- August 17: Long Island Bluegrass Festival, Copaigue, New York
- September 6-8: Pickin’ in the Panhandle, Hedgesville, West Virginia
- September 13-15: Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills, Plymouth, California
- September 28-29: Park Slope Bluegrass and Old Time Music Jamboree, Brooklyn, New York
In February, Reams will be at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, for a dedication honoring his long-time partner Tina Aridas’ contribution to the genre. Aridas passed away in February 2011 and was a significant factor in Reams’ music.
Highlights over 20 years
When asked why he got into bluegrass and stayed there, Reams enthusiastically replied, “What pulled me into this music was groups like the Stanley Brothers. There’s a sort of chill, goose bumps that affected me when I heard them play. A passion for this music was born in me. I’ve always felt that excitement whenever I perform.”
His career highlights over the past 20 years include:
- The release of three albums on the Copper Creek record label. Tom Paley suggested that Reams shop around the recordings they had made together which resulted in Artie Rose recommending Gary Reid at Copper Creek Records. The day he received the recordings, Reid called and offered to put it out on their national record label. Reams was not only shocked but near to tears when he received the news. It was a dream-come-true for that little boy in Kentucky who used to sing at the kitchen table.
- The IBMA nomination as Emerging Artist of the Year. Reams was sitting at the kitchen table when he got the news. The whole thing was so surreal. As a young man he had always dreamed of contributing to this genre of music. And now he was playing the music he loved with idols of his day like Tom Paley and Walter Hensley and being recognized by the industry. It just doesn’t get any better than that!
- The IBMA nomination for Recording Event of the Year. When Reams received another phone call from IBMA letting him know that he was also being nominated for his album James Reams, Walter Hensley and the Barons of Bluegrass, it was almost too much to bear. When he told Walter the news, Walter asked, “Who are the other nominees?” When James replied, “The Chieftans and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.” Walt responded, “Well, we might as well forget that one!”
- Being a featured performer at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts – The Roots of American Music Festival was a big feather in their cap.
- Performing on the TV show, Song of the Mountains with Mike Seeger and Paul Williams (from Jimmy Martin’s original band). The theatre was packed and even years later people still mention that they had seen the performance. Mike Seeger talked with Reams at length afterwards and told him that the band reminded him of his early days in bluegrass.
- Being asked to perform on Merry Go-Round (the third longest running live music show on radio) was another big thrill. Just being at historic WPAQ where the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, and other pioneers played gave James a sense of his place in bluegrass history.
- Many festivals have provided highlights over the years but one of the first was the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival where the band featured Walter Hensley. Reams remembers Del McCoury hanging around backstage with his sons in rapt attention as Hensley tore into the music.
- The highlight of the Coast-to-Coast Celebration will be 2013 Bluegrass/Old-Time Music Jamboree, an annual music event that Reams has been organizing since 1998. This year he hopes to include a reunion with band members over the years and feature a screening of the DVD “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” with perhaps a special guest or two from the movie making an appearance.
Reams truly is an ambassador for bluegrass music. His passion for the genre itself and everyone who has been a part of bringing traditional music into the mainstream has culminated in the production the DVD documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass: Tales of the Early Days in Their Own Words. Everyone who truly loves bluegrass music should want to hear from not just the big names in the business but from the likes of Bill Yates, Art Stamper, Melvin Goins and Kenny Baker…words preserved now in this documentary, honouring their legacy. The film will be released in the middle of the year as part of Reams’ 20th anniversary celebration.
Plans for 2013 and beyond
So what’s next for James Reams? Well, he’s planning to release an EP of bluegrass/gospel Christmas songs in the fall 2013 and is currently working on an album of mostly original music for 2014 featuring both bands. Reams has worked hard to blend the traditional music that he grew up with and the bluegrass music of today in his original songs that appear on each of his albums.
Just listen to one of these well-crafted tunes and you can understand why Reams says, “You can’t learn passion. You can learn how to do scales and practice to a metronome. But to bring the music alive, you’ve got to feel it deep down in your bones. There’s no school for soul.”