James Reams’ reputation as an auteur devoted to bluegrass and other traditional American musical forms is well established. Known to many as the “Ambassador of Bluegrass,” he’s plied his skills for the better part of the past 35 years. He’s also earned the additional nicknames, “Father of Brooklyn Bluegrass,” and “Kentucky Songbird” as the result of past residencies and active involvement in those diverse environs.
Reams has recorded twelve influential albums to date, but his latest, Like a Flowing River, is clearly his most definitive to date. A two disc set, it’s a greatest hits of sort, one that provides an overview of his life in music, as well as a soundtrack to an Amazon documentary of the same name.
Not surprisingly then, much of the material consists of previously released covers of songs by other artists, and yet, given Reams’ credence and creativity, there’s never any doubt as far as whose imprint is imbued in each of these interpretations. Songs such as King of the Blues, Freight Train Blues, Almost Hear the Blues, and Livin’ Without You may hint at some dark despair, but Reams’ down-home designs allow for assured authenticity in terms of the sincerity of the sentiment.
So too, certain songs on the soundtrack itself detail tragedy and turmoil tied to the Appalachian experience — Buffalo Creek Flood, Riving Rising, and Troubled Times in particular — but there again, the end result becomes an homage to optimism and endurance.
On the other hand, Born To Roll and We’re the Kind of People That Make the Jukebox Play, affirm the fact that his dedication and devotion remains both ebullient and inspired. Names such as Roy Acuff, Chris Gaffney, Kevin Welch, Mike Henderson, and Alton Delmore appear within the writing credits, but it’s Reams’ astute interpretations that allow his own personal imprint to shine through. Even a seasoned standard like the extended live take on Orange Blossom Special which closes out disc one, comes across as singular set-up given Reams’ reliable read and its frenzied fiddle and mandolin embellishment. Note the way they drop in a hint of The Flintstones theme just to jazz things up.
Likewise, James’ own material, co-written for the most part with Tina Aridas, blurs the lines between the standards and originals, while sharing a sound that’s deeply entrenched in the traditional firmament. These 30 songs represent classic grassicana, eschewing any unnecessary embellishment that might otherwise clutter the proceedings. Reams’ vocals are solid and straight-forward, sharing a resonance that only a decided devotee can offer.
Consequently, anyone searching for a perfect primer in basic bluegrass need look no further. Like a Flowing River provides the perfect pastiche.