For Nashvile-based artist, "Mean Mary" James, life has been one long and adventurous road show. Learning guitar at age 5, she could read music before she could even read words. It was about this time she wrote her first song, Mean Mary From Alabam, that would give her a life-long stage name that, while contrasting her sweet personality, could apply to her mean banjo picking today.
With an incredible voice and her skills on guitar, banjo, and violin, she has been entertaining audiences far and wide for many years. A passionate songwriter with seven albums currently available, her story songs are epic, and her genre-crossing music incredible. It's an endless road filled with live performances from TV to clubs, festivals, and even house concerts, and her creative drive keeps her going all the way.
Also a novelist, along with her mother, Jean James, the pair have co-authored five novels, including the recently published Hell Is Naked. Mary's own life experiences could make for an exciting adventure novel, and many of these do make it into her songs and novels.
I found Mary via YouTube, where her wonderfully creative music videos reach around the world, and her skills as videographer really shine. I recently had the great opportunity to talk with this multi-faceted artist about her work. Please enjoy, and be sure to check out the videos and links provided to find out more about this wonderful artist.
Mary's currently on tour, performing across the US, and in Europe from August to October, plus more US shows scheduled throughout November. Check here for tour dates.
You've been very active in your craft for a long time: writing, recording, gigging everywhere, and even co-authoring books with your mother, Jean James. How do you find time for everything? What drives you?
I don’t find time for everything! I tend to stay about two to three years behind on every creative project, and everything else for that matter. I’ve literally answered emails two years late. Despite that though, there is definitely a passion and a drive that keeps me forging ahead and never seems to change. It’s hard to explain.
Earlier on in your musical career you and your brother Frank performed at historical events, and even performed songs on horseback. What kind of songs were you playing at this time? How was this experience, especially with the horses, Apache and Rogue?
We were playing mostly music from the 1800s or before. There are some really amazing melodies and lyrics in that older music. It’s a shame so much of it has been forgotten.
The horses were a handful – especially my horse, Apache. I would play the guitar with the reins in the same hand as my guitar neck – that was the easy part. The part that wasn’t so easy was when we rode in parades and Apache was always fighting me because he wanted to go faster. He always wanted to pass everyone in front of us so he could be at the front of the parade. He loved it, and he still loves the attention. He starts prancing and lifts his head really high when people are watching him. We use him a lot in our music videos.
Mary James and brother, Frank James (photo credit: Johnny Giles)
Your music reflects a bit of everything, from roots to rock. Do you have a favorite genre? And who are your musical heroes?
I love all kinds of music. I’m pretty much open to any genre as long as the music is well-done. There are a lot of artists I admire but I can’t really say I had any musical heroes that got me started playing music. I learned how to play from sheet music when I was five and I wasn’t listening to the artists playing the songs. It was the songs themselves more than anything that inspired me growing up.
What is your songwriting process like? Does it begin with a musical idea, or something you want to say that drives the music?
Every song is completely different in its process. Some songs are easy to write and some are just frustrating and take forever. Some start with a tune and the lyrics just magically happen – inspired by the melody, and other songs start with an idea that I’m passionate about or just a line that inspires a mood.
Your music videos are very well done and highly creative. What all goes into the process? Any memorable moments?
Thank you. My mom and I are a two women crew on pretty much all my music videos. It’s usually just the two of us coming up with the ideas and wearing all the different hats from videographer to video editor.
Too many memorable moments to count, or at least too many embarrassing moments to count. I almost froze to death shooting the underwater scenes in, Sea Red, Sea Blue, and my mom got hypothermia. That was a fun shoot.
The video for Sea Red, Sea Blue is one of my favorites. From using selective color (Blue dress onshore) to the underwater filming. How hard was it getting those underwater shots?
It was tough. I never thought we’d be able get what we wanted, when we were shooting underwater, but it was so beautiful, what we saw, that we had to try. We had a GoPro in waterproof housing and we just held our breaths and went for it. The main suffering was when we were out of the water in between shooting. We had to keep getting out of the water to check the footage and adjust things, and it was so cold and windy. We’d plunge right back in the water again, shivering the whole time.
I originally found your music through YouTube, as I became aware of a lot of great Americana artists out there I'd never heard of otherwise. Has YouTube helped a lot to grow your audience?
Definitely. I have fans of my music from all over the world just because of my videos. I always have people come up to me at shows and tell me they found me on YouTube.
You have 7 albums currently available. Any personal favorites, or favorite song you've written? Anything that was hardest to write?
I can’t say I have a favorite – usually it’s the newest song.
I think probably Sweet Jezebel was the hardest song for me to write. It almost didn’t make it on the album.
Since reading your bio, I have to admit one of my most burning questions is about your family's move from Florida to the deep-freeze of northern Minnesota to rough it in the wild when you were just 4 years old. How on Earth was that decision made? What was most memorable from this experience?
I was only four so I wasn’t involved a whole lot in the decision making at the time. As far as I knew, everybody built their own homes with an axe and lived in the woods with no electricity, and everybody’s mom caught snakes and fought bears. My parents were just very adventurous people and they encouraged us all to try new things and have experiences. My whole childhood was a big adventure.
Your current album, Blazing, was written as a soundtrack to your latest book, Hell Is Naked. Can you tell us a bit about the book and where the original idea came from?
My mom and I always take from life when we write our books. If you lived something and have all the emotions and details from that event, it’s going to show when you write. The character in one of our first novels, Wherefore Art Thou Jane, was based on my mom’s snake-catching experiences. The heroine in that book caught snakes and critters for a living in Florida just like Mom used to do.
The novel, Hell Is Naked, is based on our time working in the movie industry. I spent three years in LA working as photo double, stand-in, stunt double, and background actor. The hero in the book is retired from SWAT and this big 6’6” bungling oaf – coincidentally, so is my brother. Lol. We patterned him after my one of my older brothers. The hero, Warren, is working as a private detective and bungles his way in the Hollywood scene, pretending to be a movie extra, while he’s looking for a missing girl. We used a lot of funny incidents from time spent in Hollywood. It was a really fun book to write.
The new album, Blazing, is wonderful, with a bit of everything. The title track, featuring your fast banjo picking, is aptly named and I love the haunting, layered vocals in Gone. Harlequin is a wonderful, old-time piece, with a great new video to match, and Lights, Gun, Action - a great flamenco-styled tune with a banjo twist (really cool). As this was recorded as a soundtrack to your novel, Hell is Naked, how did the idea to record a soundtrack come about? Was this written right alongside the novel?
The novel was written first. Normally we like to do a theme song for our books and record that song on whatever album I have coming out at the time. The soundtrack was such a horrible, wonderful idea at the time. I was touring constantly and had no free time last year. I was just driving, on way to another show, and the idea to make a full soundtrack came to me.
I would have never equated family fun with catching venemous snakes, but you and your siblings actually did this with your mother? Did anyone have to receive the anti-venom for which you were doing this?
My mom was the only one that handled the venomous snakes. She was never bitten by a venomous snake but she came close a few times, and of course she was bit many times by non-venomous snakes. My older siblings would catch non-venomous snakes occasionally but I was a little young for that. I caught toads and lizards.
There is an upcoming Mean Mary & The Contrarys album. Seeing the videos of Waiting and Seven League Shoes, I'm incredibly excited to hear this one. How is it coming along? And how is this different from your past releases?
It’s a little more rock and roll than my last few albums – though all of my albums have a broad spectrum of genres. Most people don’t know this, but I wrote and played a lot of rock music when I was growing up. I even have an album from when I was 17 that’s very alternative rock. However, no matter what style of music I’m playing, I think lyrics and melody are the most important, and I like vocals upfront and the music natural and not over-produced.
I’ve been so busy with touring and making videos for the last album that I’m way behind on the project. I plan to have two albums out next year. The Mean Mary & The Contrarys album, where I’ll be playing mostly electric banjo and electric guitar, and then another Mean Mary, acoustic album. Hopefully I’ll have time to immerse myself in them when I get back from my European tour later this fall.
Mary James and Apache (photo credit: Johnny Giles)
I read somewhere that although you mainly play banjo, guitar and fiddle, you're proficient with 12 instruments. What is the list of instruments, and if you had to pick only one, what would it be?
It’s 11 – that’s what they usually say. Guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, viola, bass, piano, saxophone, dulcimer, castanets, and percussion. I tinker around with some other instruments too. I don’t have much time these days to pick up a lot of my other instruments unless I’m recording. I’d hate to hear what I sound like on the saxophone right now.
I couldn’t really pick one. Depends on my mood and what I’m working on at the time.
Any words of advice for aspiring artists?
The internet and social media created a miracle and a monster. There are so many people giving artists positive feedback, but at the same time there are almost as many people giving negative feedback. I think some artists only remember the negative. I believe if you work hard and do the best you can then you’re a success. Just tune out the rest, keep enjoying what you’re doing, and never quit.