That’ll be Alabama-born. Florida-raised and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mary James, an early musical prodigy from a musical family (guitarist brother Frank and co-writer author mother Jean) who was writing songs at five, playing banjo, guitar and violin at seven and releasing her first recording, Mean Mary From Alaba, at age six. The soubriquet, incidentally, comes from the way she plays banjo rather than anything parsimonious or callous,
She’s now on to her fifth album (her last, Blazing, was the soundtrack to Hell Is Naked, the fifth novel co-written with her mother), a mix of Americana, bluegrass and folk that kicks off with ‘I Fell Into The Night’, a stark and spooked accordion-shaded, banjo blues example of the backwoods gothic that characterises her storytelling that more suggests Piaf than the hillbilly Amy Winehouse comparisons with which she’s been tagged.
It sets the mood for what follows both musically and lyrically with things like ‘Dark Woods’ with Frank on 12-string where she sings “Forget the city and its false lights / They steal your dreams, they steal your nights / Leave your troubles, your worldly goods / And run with me, run with me / To the dark woods”, the desolate tremulous vocals loss-themed exposed folk of the eight minute ‘Cold (House By The Sea)’, the emotional resignation of the solo-accompanied ‘Sad November Breeze’, ‘Friend I Never Had’ riding a jazzed frisky blues shuffle and, taking its cue from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, ‘Quoth The Mockingbird’ with its nimble banjo picking, guitar and stomp.
From a personal perspective, I find her strongest when she strips the instrumentation back to basics (not that anything here is what you might call elaborate), particularly on the banjo dappled yearning melodic folksiness of the ‘Rainy Day’ as her voice soars to almost a yodel, the simple accordion backed strum of the upbeat ‘April In December’ (where she sounds little like a Southern Joan Armatrading) and, Frank again on 12-string, the quite lovely folk feathers of ‘Sparrow’.
Digging out the violin to go with the banjo, piano, percussion and 12-string, she ends with the brief instrumental ‘Forevermore’ marrying traditional American folk and Eastern European gypsy influences to rousing effect, singing the title as the closing note.
The album may be Cold, but she’s white hot.
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Artist’s website: www.meanmary.com
‘Dark Woods’ – official video: