James Reams and the Barnstormers
One Foot In The Honky Tonk
Mountain Redbird Music
4 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
I read a remark a few days ago that James reminded the writer of Larry Sparks. I hear that now and then in this CD but I associate his music more with Karl Shifflett. (In fairness to James, you could say Karl reminds you of James, I’ve just heard lots more of Karl’s music.) This isn’t meant to imply the Barnstormers’ music is derivative of anyone else. They have been around almost two decades, playing their own style of music.
James’ music is hardcore traditional bluegrass and acoustic music. There’s no indication that he feels bound to the Monroe tradition and you’ll hear some old-time sound in his music, but if he isn’t in the same vein of coal with Monroe he’s certainly in the same coal mine. While many performers through the years have tried to reach associated crowds to broaden their appeal, from the country leanings of the Osborne Brothers to the folk music era for Flatt & Scruggs to the sounds of newgrass, you don’t hear that with James’ music. You have to take him as he is.
With James providing lead vocals and guitar accompaniment, he’s joined by Mark Farrell on fiddle and mandolin and adding harmony vocals, Doug Nicolaisen on banjo and Nick Sullivan on upright bass and harmony vocals. This CD includes guests Kenny Kosek on fiddle (on the tracks where Farrell plays mandolin) and Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin (when Mark is on fiddle). If you read between the lines, that implies they recorded as a band without overdubbing.
I divide my listening to a CD into four parts: production and engineering, song selection, the pickers and the singers. The production and engineering are good on this CD. You’ll hear a good mix of singing with supporting instrumental work without over-production.
I like the picking. Nicolaisen’s banjo is driving and clean. On “Susquehanna Getaway,” “Rocky Creek” and “Passamquoddy” he drives the song. The fiddle work is excellent and I’m impressed by the mandolin playing. You’ll hear some players who have a tendency to gallop on the mandolin but whoever is picking (Farrell or Mitterhoff) just picks the strings off of it. And while the bass is a foundation instrument, you’ll hear some interesting licks and slides that Sullivan adds to keep things interesting.
The harmonies are definitely background vocals. You won’t hear them often and James’ vocal is definitely setting well on top. James is an okay singer and his voice is something of an acquired taste. I can think of several bluegrass singers that almost everyone (judging by crowd reaction) loves to hear, Jamie Daley to name one, and others people like to hear but as a part of the total band package and that’s where I put James. He does better with traditional songs (than soulful blues) and that’s where he keeps the band rooted.
The song selection is an interesting mix. “Almost Hear The Blues” was penned by Stonewall Jackson who pitched it to James over the telephone. This is a great song with a great bluesy mandolin behind it and superb bass work. The other end of the spectrum is “Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea,” a traditional (old-time) song. Reams and Farrell have an interest and commitment to this type of music but this song seems out of place stuck in this collection all by itself.
“In The Corner At The Table By The Jukebox” keeps up the honky-tonk theme. Written by James Hand (and the song that plays when you go to his website), it features some classic fiddle work by Kosek and melodic banjo from Nicoaisen. It’s also a good example of what I said above: James’ singing can be an acquired taste. There’s lots of blues on this CD: “King Of The Blues,” “Almost Hear The Blues,” and “Florida Blues,” all fitting well with the jukebox and honky tonk theme.
If you’re a Barnstormers fan then you should love this CD. If you’re not familiar with them and you like traditional bluegrass-country, you should take the time to try them.