Nashville Fast Picker ‘Mean Mary’ Performs July 7

There aren’t many like Mean Mary.

She could read music before she could read English. She plays 11 instruments, writes award-winning books with her mom, and was the star of a TV show in Nashville. She learned to play the guitar at four when her family lived in northern Minnesota in a log cabin they built themselves and wrote her first song at five.

And she’s fast. Blazing fast.

Coming to Egg Harbor’s Woodwalk Gallery on July 7, Mean Mary has garnered a reputation through her music as a talented folk storyteller with the instrumental skills to back up her prose.

That may be a pretty good summation of “Mean” Mary James’s life: lots of stories, and enough willpower and determination to make those stories her own.

Having music as an outlet her whole life has given James ample opportunity to channel those stories into a creative product.

Her brief foray into the movie industry while her family lived in Hollywood pushed her even more in this direction.

“Songs are kind of like mini movies to me,” James said. “Stories are complemented by music…I think the two go hand in hand.”

Her 2013 album, Year of the Sparrow, intersperses instrumental tracks through an album filled with stories, like the tragic history revealed at the end of “Death and the Maiden” or the feverish dreams of a woman in the aftermath of a car crash materializing as a man and his guitar in “Sweet Jezebel.”

And did I say she was fast? She needs just 52 seconds of a YouTube video titled “Mean Mary Playing Fast Banjo” to prove it. You get the picture as she lounges on the patio, flashing an easy smile after her right hand sets her banjo on fire.

An adventure is never without its challenges, but those challenges are what bring you to the true prize of the adventure. After her vocal chords were paralyzed in an auto accident, James spent her time practicing her instruments furiously.

“I found myself very grateful for the fact that I played instruments,” James said, as she remembered her period of voicelessness. “I can’t sing now, but I can play. I can still make music. I can still create.”

Since recovering her voice, she’s toured relentlessly and put out three albums, all self-produced. She assigns a lot of the credit to her family, most notably her creative collaboration with her mother, Jean James.

“Sometimes it’s good to have an outside perspective, and usually we [me and my mom] have that dynamic where whenever one of us is slacking the other one can say, ‘you know, that one line right here doesn’t work,’” James said. James and her mother have collaborated on the mystery trilogy Pate and Faircloth, on which the songs “Wherefore Art Thou, Jane?” and “Methinks I See Thee Jane” are based.

“My mom is a jack-of-all-trades, really a do-everything person,” James said. “Growing up, we would always do things the Swiss Family Robinson way…It’s good to have that natural aspect [of work outdoors], and my mom’s always out here digging fence posts, keeping it real. She’s instilled a lot of that in me.”

That Mary James has made a push into so many different fields – from acting to music and music production to fiction writing – is a testament to her spirit of involvement in life and her dedication to renewal. There always seems to be another book, another band, another barn to build. She claims that all that energy comes from a combination of coffee and a good crowd.

“I’m really passionate about what I do,” James said. “I have so many projects that I can’t get to that I want to do… The people that come to your shows… [Their encouragement] makes you feel as good as they say that you’re making them feel.”

Perhaps her greatest achievement is combining that childlike innocence with the resourcefulness of her family. Mean Mary conjures up a heroine from a Tom Robbins novel: ubiquitously creative, fearlessly uninhibited, reveling in faithfully uncompromised self-expression.


For a chance to see Mean Mary, head to Woodwalk Gallery on July 7. House band Small Forest will start the show at 7pm. Admission is $20 and all ages are welcome. Woodwalk Gallery is located at 6746 County G, Egg Harbor.


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