James Reams is one of bluegrass music's unconventional stalwarts.
A son of Kentucky, Reams' journey has taken any number of unusual pathways since the mid-seventies. Producing albums for more than 20 years, Reams' ninth release of personable bluegrass, "Rhyme and Season," is a relaunch for Reams, an artist who has never followed a singular route.
Having worked out of Brooklyn the majority of his adult life, 2011 found Reams at a crossroads. His partner and greatest supporter passed following a lengthy illness. He moved to Arizona to be near his failing mother; despite his loses, the desert air agreed with the freshly retired teacher, and in it, Reams found healing.
Having completed his long-term film project "Making History with the Pioneers of Bluegrass" a couple of years ago, Reams has most recently focused his attention to capturing current inspirations in the recording studio. Fronting The Barnstormers for many years, with both east- and west-coast versions of the group intact, "Rhyme and Season" is on his own Mountain Redbird imprint.
"Rhyme & Season" is most deliberately a concept album, a rarity in bluegrass circles. It includes songs from Mike Stinson ("Angel of the Evening," Marty Stuart ("Rough Around the Edges,") and Lawrence Shoberg ("Born to Roll") and from the catalogs of Porter Wagoner ("$100 Funeral") and Charley Pride ("Special,") songs that capture the experiences of life's outliers, the lost and often invisible.
The album's foundation can be found in Reams' own experiences.
With the album's theme being apparent – life's journeys and challenges – you have revealed that you were homeless in your late teens. You left Kentucky around that time. What was your plan when you left home, and how did you overcome homelessness?
Reams: I had just turned 17 when I decided to go out on my own. I was feeling out of place and a lot of the things that I held dear were gone. My parents had sold the farm at auction, wanting to find something better for us — everything I had ever valued was gone. I saw a little boy riding away on my bicycle. It was traumatic, and left me out of sorts."
"Luckily, I had music in my life. I had been playing music in taverns and bars and one of the things that patrons like to give to musicians is a good, stiff drink. Of course, that never seems to work out well for young people. I was introduced to a lot of things before my time, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. It made me grow up and created a desire for independence."
"A wild streak entered my life, and I decided to ramble like many of my heroes. Little did I know the dangers of a wanderer's life. My parents relocated to Wisconsin, and I headed south, making it as far as Pompano Beach, Fla. before I ran out of gas. I slept in the car until lizards took it over — never park with the windows open under a tree in Florida — and then moved onto an abandoned truck bed near a truck stop where I would bathe each morning. I worked to get food to eat, but it was kind of like the biblical story of the prodigal son. I was hungry all the time and just wanted to go home."
"I came back to my parents humbled and weary, realizing that if I wanted to succeed I needed to have an education. I worked my way through school picking whatever was ripe and ready on local farms, working side-by-side migrant workers. That experience acquainted me with the life of the working poor and those down on their luck."
"After I graduated from college, I headed off to the Big Apple and pursued my music career. I hadn't been there long, was really struggling and had been robbed of my rent money; I called home for suggestions. I didn't want to ask my dad for money, just advice, and he said that I had to get a regular job. I had a college degree, and took advantage of an opportunity with the N.Y.C. Board of Education to become a teacher for special needs kids. I started going down to Greenwich Village because of the revival of the folk music scene and started playing old timey country songs at Folk City and other little places like the Good Ole Coffeehouse. That's how I met Tina."
Q: In "Rhyme & Season's" liner notes, Gary Reid emphasizes Tina Aridas' influence on your life, and her ongoing impact on your music. Can you expand on that?
Reams: Tina and I were soulmates. We had an amazing Yin and Yang relationship. She was fastidious, extremely detail-oriented and business-minded. I was impetuous and had this tremendous passion for and dedication to the music industry. Tina loved music and writing, and we became so involved in songwriting that we'd play off of each other as we collaborated.
"It was with her help that I moved from being a small local act to a well-known regional band and then, with the record deal (Copper Creek), to a nationally-known artist. She was inexhaustible in promoting the records, and the band and reached out to the whole bluegrass community."
"When she passed away, I found some CDs that she had burned and listened to them over and over. On ‘Tina's Favorites' was ‘Acre by Acre,' which I've included on ‘Rhyme & Season.' This poignant Chuck Brodsky song of loss resonated with me on many levels. I guess the only thing for me to say is that I loved her and still do."
Q: How did you decide on the title of the album, "Rhyme & Season?"
Reams: "'Rhyme & Season'" is a play on the adage ‘no rhyme or reason.' It's about life experiences that don't always have an explanation. I included season in the title because I've reached that season in my life when I can look back over all the things that have happened and see how far I've come. We're all pilgrims on life's journey — some of us get to choose the path we're on and others have no choice. This album is about that journey."
Q: You left New York in 2011. How have things changed for you in that time?
Reams: "Many a life has been changed by taking a leap into the unknown — sometimes it 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 cancer consumed her, and I put my career on hold to head out west."
:"I chose Arizona because my mother was ill, and I wanted to be by her side. I had just lost Tina, the love of my life, and was struggling with grief that threatened to overwhelm me. Arriving here was surreal. I swear that the saguaro cactus looked like praying hands. The Sonoran Desert is beautiful, but it is also brutal."
"As I threw myself into the music, the healing began. It took a while, but I like to think of ‘Rhyme & Season' as a catharsis. I'm in a much better place emotionally than I was five years ago, and I think it shows in the maturity of this work."
An expanded version of this interview, including a track-by-track commentary from Reams, will be published at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.