This is the third and final part of our conversation with bluegrass veteran James Reams, whose ninth album of bluegrass was recently released.
To gain further insight into Reams' decision making as he created "Rhyme & Season," I asked him to take us through the album song-by-song.
The album begins with a song that didn't particularly appeal to me on first listen, but which I was drawn to reevaluate given James' enthusiasm for the track.
Q: "Born to Roll"-you mentioned that you heard this song on the radio once. How did you settle on this driving arrangement, one that mimics the rhythms of a big rig rumbling across the country?
Reams: "You know, it's a bit weird how something will really hit me as I'm driving along listening to the radio. It's like a song just reaches out and slaps me in the face and I think, "Hey, I should record this one!" I understand that you had to let this song grow on you and that's part of the thrill of creating a new album. Some people will love a song the first time they hear it, others have to let it simmer a while! But I always think the song is king!"
"I worked on "Born to Roll" with the Barnstormers on the east coast. When I brought the song to them, I told them how I wanted to rearrange it. We challenged ourselves as we worked to find a way that made our instruments imitate the wheels of a truck roaring down the highway. I wanted to make it a James Reams & the Barnstormers song and not just a repeat of someone else's vision. I think we succeeded!"
"I felt that this song belonged on this album because it celebrates the nomadic life of a trucker, one of the few career paths that involves an aspect of homelessness. The lyrics are bold and brash, just like many truckers, and gives the listener the distinct impression of someone who is happy with his life choices."
Q: "Special"-a deep cut from 1970, and a classic Charley Pride performance. What made this one appeal to you?
Reams: "This song has such great imagery in it. I worked on this one with the west coast band. When we created the arrangement, I particularly liked the sound of the train whistle that comes in after we sing the chorus. We also created an instrumental turnaround that allows the different instruments to shine."
"I've had "Special" in mind for an album for a long time. As I was picking and choosing songs for "Rhyme & Season, "I wanted to be sure that I had a balance between ballads and up tempo tunes like "Special." The song choices not only needed to relate to the different paths in life that people are on, but also to reflect the emotions associated with those paths. I thought "Special" brought home the camaraderie of riding the rails without glorifying it."
Q: "Acre by Acre"- you told me that you found this great song by Chuck Brodsky on a mix of Tina's favorites. For me, it contains echoes of one of your strongest songs, "Troubled Times." What pushed this one to the top of the pile when it came to choosing songs for the album?
Reams: "I think Chuck really told a great story about the history of the American farmer-sadly, a vanishing breed in our day and age. The lyrics capture the demise of an institution that made America strong. It speaks of another kind of homelessness, that of losing a family heritage. I loved this song from the first moment that I sat down and picked it out on the guitar. It was poignant without being maudlin. I thought it provided just the right type of ballad to weigh against another family legacy song on the album, "Born to Roll."'
Q: "I Am a Stranger Here" comes up next.
Reams: '"I Am a Stranger Here" was originally written by Davis Raines. I changed a few of the lyrics, added a verse and rearranged the melody. I wanted to present the view of a wanderer that actually enjoys roaming from town to town and meeting new people. This is one of those songs that I hope will help change people's attitudes toward the drifters, refugees, and wanderers that come through their communities looking for a friendly face."
"It took on religious overtones for me as I imagined a modern day Jesus strolling through the desert towns of the southwest. Perhaps listeners will be encouraged to see the image of God in the face of a stranger."
Q: Frequently, you've revamped a more contemporary country song, usually one that failed to dent the charts. You've done this with songs from Mike Henderson and Kevin Welch ("One Foot in the Honky Tonk,") Fred Eaglesmith ("Bailing Again,") Robbie Fulks ("Cold Statesboro Ground,") and The O'Kanes ("Just Loving You," which was a Top 5 hit.) This time, you refresh "Angel of the Evening " from Mike Stinson. The song has humility within its darker shades.
Reams: "This is admittedly one of the saddest songs on the album. When I got the idea about a concept album, I did some research about the homeless and was really moved by the statistics concerning homeless women and children. Did you know that 1 in 30 children in America are homeless? Most of those kids are under the age of 6 and are accompanied by their mother."
"Although "Angel of the Evening" may not have started out as a song about a homeless mother, it's a sad fact in our society today that many wives and children end up losing their home when the primary breadwinner is killed or dies from a long, expensive disease. To me, this song radiated with the love of a husband looking down from heaven as his wife struggles to survive. I liked the juxtaposition of "angel" in the lyrics; he may be in heaven, but she's still his earthly angel."
Q: "Rough Around the Edges"-a darned fine recent Marty Stuart song.
Reams: "Substance abuse and addiction are perhaps the highest contributors to homelessness in our country today. I've known many a fine musician that has headed down this lonely path to destruction, Carter Stanley comes to mind. I wanted to pay tribute to those who have had a rough time pulling themselves out of the gutter and to those who have lost the battle. Like I said in the liner notes, the journey to sobriety can be the hardest path to walk, and the loneliest."
Q: "$100 Funeral"-You've previously recorded several songs from the classic country era ("We're the Kind of People Who Make the Jukebox Play," "Goodbye and So Long to You," "You Must Walk the Line," among others). "$100 Funeral" comes from Porter Wagoner with incumbent grimness.
Reams: "This song pairs up with "Angel of the Evening" as the other really heartbreaking ballad on "Rhyme & Season." I think it sets up nicely against "Special" which celebrates the freedom of the rails. "$100 Funeral" takes us to the end of the line for the train hopper."
"I also chose this song because of what happened to me when I was homeless. When I woke up in that homeless shelter to find the lifeless body of an old man lying on the bunk under me, it was a real wake up call and resulted in my decision to return home with hat in hand. Perhaps listeners will pause to think more kindly about those on the streets and the destiny that awaits them."
Q: "Major Breakdown"-who plays the banjo on this one and where did it come from?
"My east coast bandmates have been bugging me to include "Major Breakdown" on an album for a long time. Doug Nicolaisen is the maniac on the banjo on this one. I've watched the footage that we took to create the "Making of Rhyme & Season" video, and I'm telling you, his fingers are just a blur and yet his outward appearance is cool and unruffled. I don't know how he does it, but I sure am glad that he's a Barnstormer!"
"While there aren't any lyrics for this tune, you don't need words to convey the message, "Slow down and enjoy life!" Perhaps the nomads have something to teach us after all!"
"This song was originally recorded by Albert Elliott and the Blue Ridge Partners back in 1977. Jerry Keys was the banjo player and he composed this song which explains why the banjo part really kicks you know what in this one. Like many of the musicians I was drawn to early in my career, you won't find much about Albert Elliott and the Blue Ridge Partners on the Internet. Key influences on my music have been for the most part the lesser-known names in bluegrass like Earl Taylor, Vern Williams, Sid Campbell, Landon Messer, The Church Brothers, Connie & Babe, and Cliff Waldron. These were acts that I would've given my eye teeth to see...they were edgy and different; their sound was bluegrass but they put their own unique stamp on it. That's what I hope I've accomplished in my career."
Q: "Lord, Lead the Way"- who was your co-writer on this one? What does this song mean to you?
Reams: "My office assistant, Kim Crecca, came to me with some lyrics she had written and asked if it was something that might work for "Rhyme & Season." We tweaked it a bit and I decided to work it up as an a cappella song. I haven't done one on an album before and I felt that I had the right harmony voices available in the west coast band to back it up so the time was right. This one literally came together live in the studio with Dan Meyer providing the bass."
"The lyrics really captured the shame of homelessness, the hope found in a friendly face, and the desire to return the favor. It's the whole journey of redemption in a nutshell. I think it works in tandem with "Long Gone Out West Blues" to tell my story of finding my way home and rediscovering a spiritual component in my life that has been missing for a long time."
Q: That is one by Canadians Pharis and Jason Romero, a song that reminds me of John Hartford's "In Tall Buildings; it's very melancholy and highlights the sanctity of our time on earth. You personalized the lyrics of their song to more closely reflect your experiences. How did you come to that decision?
Reams: "I liked the play on the old adage, "Go west young man!" Many a life has been changed by taking a leap into the unknown - sometimes that works out for the best and other times, not so much. For me, this song captured that leap of faith that I took when I left behind the memories of Tina's last months as the cancer consumed her and put my career on hold to head out west."
"It was especially significant that I recorded this song with the east coast bandmates that I had waved goodbye to when I moved to Arizona. Far from pulling us apart, the move has brought us closer together. I was definitely singing the blues when I left but I'm singing a new song now!"
Q: "Songbird"-We finish with what may be the strongest song in a set without a weakness. Like the majority of the songs on "Rhyme & Season," I wasn't familiar with this one before hearing your version, and that is one of the many things that have always attracted me to your albums: I always find new paths to investigate. I wasn't familiar with Warren Hood prior to this, and this is song has a driving comfort to it.
Reams: "I'm glad you like this song too. It's hard to pick a favorite of mine from this album, but I'd have to say that "Songbird" is right up there in the top 3. I felt that this song wrapped its arms around the whole album and gave it a big bear hug! "Rhyme & Season" is about the journey, about acceptance and about redemption; the lyrics from "Songbird" capture all of these aspects and the melody saturates everything with hope for tomorrow. This was actually the very first song that we recorded for the album and the first song that I recorded with my west coast bandmates."
James Reams, one of bluegrass music's true originals.