Bluegrass musician and recent convert James Reams has seen some things in his 60 years.
His life so far has been an amazing journey that has taken him across the country, in and out of homelessness, through print shops and sweat shops, onto the stage, and finally, into the Church. All of this, James says, is integral to the music he creates.
“You can learn how to do scales and practice to a metronome, but to bring the music alive you’ve got to feel it deep down in your bones,” he says. “There’s just no school for soul.”
And if there’s anything James Reams has a lot of, it’s soul.
Heralded as the “Ambassador for Bluegrass” due to his commitment to spreading the genre and other old-time music, his career spans over two decades and includes two International Bluegrass Music Association nominations, a stint at New York City’s famed Lincoln Center, and the chance to rub shoulders with some folk music legends. His band, James Reams & the Barnstormers, has released nine studio albums.
For someone so successful, James’ story has a fairly inauspicious beginning. Seventeen and troubled, he moved to Florida with little more than the clothes on his back. Eventually, the money and the gas ran out and he lived in his car.
“I slept in that car until the lizards moved in, and I bathed at a nearby truck stop. Once the lizards infested the car, I decided to go to a rescue mission,” he recounts. But the rescue mission proved only marginally better.
“They’d steal your shoes and wallet . . . anything you had,” he says. “People regularly died at these places and I remember one time when an older gentleman died in the night in the bunk below me. That’s when I realized that this way of living robbed you of any dignity.”
For James, it was a wake-up call.
“It changed my life,” he says. “I realized that I had to get serious about what I was going to do.”
Like the prodigal son, he returned home, much to the joy of his family. He put himself through college by working security at night and doing seasonal labor in the fields by day. There he developed compassion for the downtrodden and the working poor, an empathy that would later lead him to bluegrass.
“That kind of experience can’t be faked,” he says.
Experience had a little more in store for James before he began playing professionally. After earning his college degree, he moved to New York City with the intention of taking up printmaking. He worked as an apprentice under a master printmaker from France, but money continued to be a struggle. Finally, he called home. A suggestion from his father led him to a steady job as a special education teacher by day.
By night, though, James was playing guitar—a beat-up, used instrument given to him by a customer in the print shop where he once worked. He played in Greenwich Village, where the folk revival was in full swing, and eventually landed a gig at Folk City. One connection lead to another, and a few years and a few guitars later, James found himself the leader of a bluegrass band.
For James, bluegrass just seemed like the logical outcome of so much life experience. Bluegrass is not, as James says, “museum music”—he sees it as a living, breathing amalgamation that crosses boundaries of gender, class, race, age.
“Like America, it’s a melting pot,” he says. “Bluegrass music incorporates a dab of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English traditional music. To that mixture, add a dollop of African-American influence . . . Then stir it all together and pour it out over the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas where the early settlers lived; let it bake for a few generations and what you end up with is the whole bluegrass pie.”
In bluegrass, James heard the strains of early settlers and farm laborers, a life he knew well. He heard the songs of the working class mixed with jazz, blues and country and that “high lonesome” sound that even now, twenty years into his career, makes him wistful.
“One of the things that always attracted me to bluegrass music is that it accepts tragedy as a fact of life,” James says.
It was a fact of life that James himself had to accept at the pinnacle of his career. Just when he had found commercial success as a musician, a disc pushing against his spinal cord threatened paralysis—and the permanent loss of his voice.
“It felt like everything had been taken away from me . . . . But I just kept on praying and believing,” he says. With the aid of vocal exercises, James was able to regain his voice.
His celebrations, though, were short lived. As he recovered, his partner Tina was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. The pair waited for a miracle, but just 19 months later Tina passed away.
James, still in New York, was racked with grief as he put aside his music and tried to make meaning out of his life. An ailing mother led him to Arizona, and her eventual death pushed him farther into the abyss. Alone and drifting in an unfamiliar place, James found himself walking through the doors of an LDS chapel at the suggestion of a friend.
“What I found was loving acceptance. I was changed at that moment,” he says. He learned that “God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are. And I am forever grateful for that love.” James was baptized a member of the Church last summer.
Arizona is hardly the bluegrass capital of the world, but James found the music that he thought he’d put aside forever calling him back. He made new connections on the West Coast, and his 2016 concept album, Rhyme and Season, ensued.
“The title of the album is a play on the adage ‘no rhyme or reason,’ describing something that happens for no apparent reason. 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 recognize how far I’ve come,” he says.
Ultimately, the surprise album, born out of loss and experience, was a way for James to reach out.
“Sharing these tragic events creates something extremely important to all our survival,” he says. “It creates empathy.”
For James, that empathy includes giving back. A procced of the album’s profits will be donated to Circle the City, a local charity that provides healthcare for the homeless.
“I felt it was time to give something back, to acknowledge the journey that the Lord took me on to get me where I am today,” he says.
It’s been a wild ride for James Reams, and above all, he is grateful.
“I am so blessed to be doing what I love.”
To discover James Reams & the Barnstormers, visit http://www.jamesreams.com/.