In this extended interview intended to complement a feature over at the Country Standard Time main page, James Reams further reflects on his decades long bluegrass adventure with emphasis on the songs comprising his most recent album, "Rhyme & Season."
James Reams, born in Kentucky, spent most of his adult life as a teacher in Brooklyn, NY. While working in schools, he built a dual career as a bluegrass musician, singer, and songwriter, while continually working to raise the profile of bluegrass music. He has been a driving force bringing the music to the city, participating in a variety of events including the Park Slope Bluegrass/Old-Time Jamboree.
Prior to "Rhyme & Season," Reams recorded eight albums of traditional-leaning (in spirit if not always in approach) bluegrass albums, three fronting his long-time band The Barnstormers, and a pair with bluegrass banjo pioneer Walter Hensley as The Barons of Bluegrass.
Whether uncovering a forgotten country classic or interpreting an unheralded contemporary song, Reams brings a fresh approach to bluegrass. His original material frequently addresses the unintended consequence of changing times, be they disaster caused by mining practices ("Buffalo Creek Flood," "Hills of My County") or the impact of declining economic ("Troubled Times") and romantic ("Snake Eyes") circumstances.
Now retired from teaching, Reams has established himself in Arizona, and fronts two sets of Barnstormers, one based in New York, the other outside of Phoenix. Having faced personal challenge, Reams was drawn to craft a new album focused on the experiences of those who frequently inhabit the fringes of society, the homeless, the ill, and the discarded. "Rhyme & Season" is a concept album, one without a connecting narrative, in which the songs share a commonality of theme and outlook.
James Reams' bluegrass may not be everyone's, but there is little chance of it being labeled generic: rough around the edges, solid to the soul! Bluegrass concept albums remain rare, and on this wide-ranging collection of singular songs, Reams and his Barnstormers have crafted an intense and sympathetic portrait of turbulent times. Reflecting the forgotten, disenfranchised, discarded, and troubled, "Rhyme & Season" is a mighty powerful return to the recording studio for one of bluegrass music's most independent and evocative visionaries.
Here is the rest of the story; we pick things up with Reams reflecting on a special moment with his greatest champion, Tina Aridas, whom he lost to cancer more than five years ago.
Reams: "I remember one time in Kentucky, we were traveling on some potholed back road and all of the sudden one of our original songs crackled over the radio. We pulled over to listen to the faint static sounds while birds sang in the trees around us. It was magical."
Aridas worked tirelessly in the promotion of James Reams & the Barnstormers. She built a base of contacts that was impressive, and I am sure I wasn't the only radio host to receive a call on-air to be thanked for playing James' music.
Q: What made you feel inspired to tie this album in its entirety to the outsiders of society?
Reams: "One of the things that always attracted me to Bluegrass music is that it accepts tragedy as a fact of life. Most folks have experienced some form of tragedy in their life and many times those events lead to homelessness. Sharing these tragic events creates something extremely important to all our survival...it creates empathy."
"A couple of years ago, I attended a charity event held at the Phoenix-based Circle the City and that's where I met Sister Adele O'Sullivan. Starting with donations kept in a shoebox, she has now built a 17,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art medical respite center that provides medical care for homeless persons."
"Her story inspired me to do something that would raise awareness about those who are living on the margins. My goal is that this concept album will help listeners recognize the wandering soul that lives in each of us and spark empathy for those living on the streets. I hope that everyone who reads this article or listens to the album will support agencies that work to help the homeless in their respective communities. I'm donating a portion of the proceeds from the album sales to help support Sister Adele and Circle the City."
Q: Tell me more about your decision to donate to this charity.
Reams: "It's not every day that you get to participate in a miracle! Sister Adele O'Sullivan is a medical doctor who started out helping homeless persons who were too ill or too frail to recover from illness or injury on the streets or in a shelter, but weren't quite sick enough to remain in the hospital. Many of these homeless persons are veterans. Some of the people her organization helps became homeless after hospital bills cleaned out their bank accounts, others couldn't return to living quarters that required them to walk up flights of stairs. The reasons are heartbreaking and she was moved to do something about it."
"Sister Adele started out with this shoebox where she kept donations she received from various people and places. She began using those funds to get medical help for people she found on the streets. That shoebox never came up empty and is still going strong today. With the help of local hospitals, the community, volunteers and donations from private foundations and individuals, there's finally a place that serves those who have nowhere to go. When the doors to the new 50-bed facility opened in 2012, Sister Adele exclaimed, "I know that between these walls, suffering will be prevented." When you see the work that's going on and the hope being given as broken lives are mended, well, you just can't help but be moved by it and to want to give something back."
Q: You've been in Arizona for almost five years now. What do the musicians you are currently working with bring to you and your music?
Reams: "I lived and worked so long on the East Coast and have so many friends still living there that it's like visiting family when I go back. I love to collaborate with musical friends and bandmates: that's what I've been doing for over 25 years."
"And I love all my bandmates too, whether long time friends or new ones. Sometimes they pass through the band quickly and other times they just click and that's when the magic happens. It's difficult being a bluegrass bandleader, but it's amazing and rewarding too. Gathering together a new band is an exciting and challenging process. I believe that's what keeps the Barnstormers music fresh and edgy."
"Getting to work with some of the legends in bluegrass music is one of the perks! When I first started out in the southwest, I had the pleasure of including legendary fiddler, Blaine Sprouse, at a number of shows and festivals. Back east, I've often worked with another renowned fiddler, Kenny Kosek. Each brought a new vibe with them but it was how the ensemble worked together that made the music stand out from other bands."
"That's one of the benefits of being a bandleader:I get to create that ensemble sound using a variety of talented musicians. I just love it when a band comes together!"
Q: What made you want to participate in this years' IBMA Bluegrass Leadership program?
Reams: "As a former special needs school teacher, I've focused my desire to share knowledge, encourage potential, and motivate people on my first passion - bluegrass music. I've received so much through my association with the bluegrass industry and am always looking for ways to give back, to help promote the music that I grew up with and love. I see bluegrass music as a means to bring people together and an opportunity to span generational as well as cultural gaps."
"As I wrapped up the feature film "Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass" (released in 2013), I reflected on what kind of legacy I might be leaving for future bluegrassers. The IBMA Leadership Bluegrass program embodies all the aspects that I have sought to incorporate into my career in bluegrass music. To be invited to join with other like-minded individuals, who share a passion for this music, and work together to preserve, grow and spread bluegrass music worldwide is a dream come true for me."
Later this week, I will post a "Rhyme & Season" track-by-track conversation with James.