Live Review

Hell Is Naked With Mean Mary James

Mean Mary on August 25, 2018

I’ve just watched footage of Mean Mary James as a six-year-old singing “Long Tall Texan” live on the  Country Boy Eddie TV Show back in '86. Wide-brimmed hat, guitar larger than her torso, a drawl and a charm and a stage presence buoyed by a fascinating mix of innocence, appeal, and innate ageless ability. A six-year-old who’s been doing this for 20 years. Experience older than her voice.

Mean Mary James is an extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalist perhaps best known for her lightning fast banjo, but she's also masterful on fiddle and guitar. And while she writes and tours and records music encompassing folk and bluegrass, blues and Dixieland, she’s also an author of several novels co-written with her mother, Jean James.

Mean Mary was in Belfast the other night with her brother Frank, who gives the impression that he too has been at this for longer than he’s been alive. And while they were here she was telling us of how she wrote her first song at the age of six. The song was called “Mean Mary From Alabam,” apparently. The name stuck. On this night she was trying to convince us that the name didn’t suit her. “I’m really a nice person,” she said. Brother Frank was doing the not-agreeing-by-agreeing-too-strongly thing — the “oh yes, sure …” type of agreeing. The way siblings do. They did quite a lot of that. The on-stage mini bicker that you get with couples and siblings who spend too much time on the tour bus together and know how to utilize it for our entertainment. “San Antonio Rose" would be a case in point. He had introduced it and she hadn’t wanted to play it, but despite her protestations they managed to give us a sparkling rendition of the old song with Mary on the fiddle, bouncing the bow off the strings rhythmically as she sang.

I noticed her voice, and I noticed the regular change of instruments, and I noticed that no matter how furious or wild or relentless her playing, Mean Mary James didn’t break a sweat. From banjo to fiddle to guitar she remained in the air and only landed when she had to. But I do her a disservice as there’s more to Mary James than crazy fast picking. She was in Belfast as part of a European tour around her latest book, Hell Is Naked, co-authored with Jean James, and its accompanying soundtrack. The resulting show was a varied and seamless collection of songs and tunes and moods. Of old numbers from “O! Dem Golden Slippers” to "Rocky Top" (and even an unseasonably strange rendition of “Jingle Bells”). All were selected to show off her prowess on those strings and to draw us in, as the old songs do, to effortlessly soak them up. "Flowers Of The Dell" was a beautiful fiddle tune from the 1600s drawing the room to a still hush. But it was her story songs that stuck with me. The songs with flawed characters and history and verses that you want to hear right through to the end. One after another she’s written them, from “Iron Horse” to “Penny LaRue.” She was showing off the sparks in her playing, in her singing. She was pulling us into the characters. From call and response, to hypnotically fast effortless picking. From the audience’s hilarious attempt at animal noises to ostage sibling stand-up. This was a magic night.