James Reams Makes Music To Get You Through These Troubling Times

By Matt Levy

The Kentucky Songbird himself (Photo courtesy of James Reams).

We’re currently embroiled in an odd moment in human history. The world is in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight and everything we’ve ever known is being twisted, turned and scrutinized in ways we never thought imaginable.

The only real constant we have is music. The joy, sorrow and excitement notes can summon with the simple plucking or banging of an instrument is thankfully still alive and well.

Luckily for us, musicians are continuing to play.

We’re especially fortunate that bluegrass veteran James Reams is still going strong with his band James Reams and the Barnstormers cranking out original and classic tunes to keep us all sane while nothing else remains the same.

So, now’s a better time than ever to learn a little bit more about the man behind the music that gives us hope.

Reams, affectionately known as the Ambassador of Bluegrass or The Kentucky Songbird has been recording original songs for decades and this has helped establish his distinct bluegrass sound. Listening to the call and response chorus on Reams’ track “Cool Down On The Banks of Jordan” from his 2005 album Troubled Times, the listener can’t help but sing along and think, “Not only have I never heard anything like this, but I can’t stop belting out these catchy lyrics with James.”

In fact, if you hear Reams on the radio or catch his speaking voice — you know it’s him. He has this mixture of Southern twang blended with an air of sophistication. The passionate and inventive Reams leaves this literary and folksy touch on everything he does taking the vocabulary of music and reinterpreting it into a unique sound. Reams elaborated, “I’m trying hard not to copy my predecessors while making it my own and respecting my influences that came before.”

When Reams refers to his musical influences, let me warn you we’re talking deep cuts. Reams is not inspired by The Beatles and Bob Dylan like you and me. No, he goes obscure. James humbly pointed out, “Many people may have not heard of my favorites. Guys like Carter Stanley, Charlie Moore, Red Allen.” He added, “These were the musicians that carved out their own unique sound.”

Throughout James’ storied career, he’s released ten albums, put on festivals, created several films, toured across America and has played his music on radio and television. However, Reams didn’t become an accomplished artist with the ability to bring listeners joy overnight.

It all started in Kentucky.

Reams was raised in Eastern Kentucky in a picturesque town called London. Reams said that his childhood, “evokes beautiful memories.” Everything seemed to flood his senses like…

the small pond with the zippy tadpoles. The rubble near the coal mines. The old radios blasting out music and the local preachers. Riding in an old pick up.

His father was a farmer and he moved the family north to Wisconsin where he worked in a power plant while the family continued to farm. Ironically, Reams’ dad was off bringing home the bacon to a barn housing pigs.

In his off hours, Reams’ father loved to play music and James’ mother came from a musical family. Even in private moments, as a young boy, James found himself sharpening his ear listening to the radio in his bedroom. Sometimes with a little red transistor radio hidden under his pillow with an earphone.

However, Reams had a transformative moment in the late 1970s when he saw Woody Allen’s seminal film Manhattan that propelled his musical dreams forward finally. James fell in love with Woody’s images of New York City although he’d never visited. So, the young, carefree and idealistic James saved up $2000.00 working in a farm store and bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus to The Big Apple. All he brought was a cardboard box full of clothes. James didn’t bring his guitar because his Mother said, “It’ll get stolen!”

When he arrived, it was extremely difficult. Still, in a rare stroke of luck, a stranger gave him an old Kay guitar. He soon found himself playing gigs with this six string gifted to him in bars on the Lower East Side like Geordie’s Folk City, The Bottom Line, and Lincoln Center. Each performance was better than the last.

The forming of a band to back him was imminent. Reams’ band, The Barnstormers, soon came together and in the past 30+ years, they have released ten albums. James and the group also had the honor of collaborating with cult music hero Tom Paley who had worked with the incomparable Woody Guthrie.

Still, he has a life outside of recording. Reams was actually bitten by the filmmaking bug a number of years ago when he produced the film Making History With the Pioneers of Bluegrass. He was able to interview a handful of the first musicians who created the genre. Reams looked back on the experience marveling, “It’s rare to be able to talk to the originators of a style of music. Everybody hears the word Bluegrass and people have an understanding of it but lots of people don’t realize that in the late 1940s in the early 1950s, it was new.” These artists’ stories are one of survival and a struggle to create a musical form. Many had the choice of either playing music, picking cotton or working in a mine. He continued admitting, “It’s a little intense but it was a labor of love.”

On the side, Reams records film soundtracks. In fact, he recently did the music for a film called The Holstein Dilemma that will be available in the fall of 2020.

These days, Reams resides in a small town in Arizona called Litchfield Park and is working with filmmakers Joshua Smith and Rick Bowman on a biographical documentary about his life called Like A Flowing River a Bluegrass Passage featuring career highlights and unforgettable stories like Reams’ time spent touring with Baltimore bluegrass legend and banjo player Walter Hensley AKA the Banjo Baron of Baltimore. During that time, a lot transpired. Reams teased, “That’s what the film is actually all about. Near death experiences.”

Still, when Reams was approached to be the subject of this documentary, he sheepishly thought, “Well, nobody knows who I am.” Then, he looked back and realized that THAT is part of the story. How if you keep creating you can build a body of work and how that’s a story that needs to be told.

As for the movie, Braeden Paul of B. Paul Entertainment raves, “The film is authentic and heartfelt. James has encountered his share of struggles, but through it all he’s seen many of his dreams come to fruition and has given so much to the Bluegrass community through his many recordings and various other efforts, which are wonderfully detailed throughout this film.”

Paul continued, “Early on in the film, James is labeled as an unofficial ambassador for Bluegrass music. I would have to disagree with that title somewhat. As far as I’m concerned, James Reams is one of Bluegrass music’s greatest ambassadors!”

While in quarantine, Reams has been giving back to the community through his leadership bluegrass group. During the protests, James realized his genre was influenced by Black artist Arnold Shultz. James said, “I thought it was time Arnold was recognized.” He broached the issue with the leadership organization and, before you know it, The International Bluegrass Music Association Foundation established the Arnold Shultz Fund to grow a more inclusive community. He’s proud he pushed the issue.

Five years from now, Reams would love to still have a creative life, collaborating with great musicians and helping people. No matter if the pandemic is raging on, we can count on James to produce music to keep a smile on our faces in these unpredictable times. He and his music is the constant.

You can find the Ambassador of Bluegrass on his website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, I wanted to leave you with one final piece of wisdom from James himself:

Life is just sweeter when you don’t take things too personally.