Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: Mary James, the singer, songwriter, and banjo/fiddle/guitar player also known as Mean Mary, is not mean at all. The name comes from a song she and her mother wrote before James was even in kindergarten called “Mean Mary from Alabam.”
“I started playing really young, and my mom was a big help with that,” she says. “It was great having that kind of support. Besides co-writing songs with me, she sometimes travels with me and does videography for my performances and my cable access show. I’ve even put my husband to work as a photographer. As an independent musician, you need all the help you can get, and I have lots of it. It’s a blessing.”
These days, she’s a dazzling multi-instrumentalist who emphasizes her sparkling banjo playing but is equally adept on fiddle and guitar. In addition to releasing three albums and touring solo, she’s also recorded and toured with her brother Frank (as Mean Mary & the Contrarys). James hosts a Nashville cable-access, documentary-style show called Never Ending Street that depicts the life of a touring musician — and she’s an author to boot, having co-written four novels with her mother, Jean.
James’ music is a blend of folk, bluegrass, and blues, but centering her songwriting efforts on one instrument, the banjo, has been helpful in focusing her sound. “When you play multiple instruments, you spread your time between them, and it’s been a lot of fun centering just on one instrument over the last few years and writing instrumentals specifically for it,” she says. “And it’s not necessarily bluegrass, though a lot of people think of the banjo as specifically a bluegrass instrument. I like to mix everything from blues to folk-rock into what I write.”
Another important aspect of Mean Mary’s sound is James’ resonant, emotional vocal performances, though there was a time that she thought she’d have to retire from performing. In her mid-teens, James was in a car accident that paralyzed her right vocal cord. It was only after extensive rehabilitation that she was able to sing again.
“I was in California working in the movie industry, and I’d kind of pushed the music to the side, because it felt like old news. After the accident, I realized how important music was to me and what a blessing it is to be able to make music and sing. And that completely changed my outlook on what I’d been doing my whole life. It also made me appreciate the fact that I played instruments. It was very glamorous to be out front and sing, especially as a young girl. And it was only when I couldn’t sing that I realized that I could still play music. I still had the opportunity to make music even if my vocal cord never got better.”
The resolve she learned during recovery probably comes in handy for James; she’s an independent artist who handles virtually every aspect of her career herself. “I could sit here and list all the pros and cons at length, but really, it’s great because there’s no middleman,” James says. “You can reach out directly to your fans and have so much better of a relationship. The essence of making music is the connection between the musicians and the people who listen to the music.”
“But you also have to become a businessperson,” she adds. “That’s one of the drawbacks, because it can take away from your creative side, working on things like publicity, booking yourself, and managing yourself. But you have the control that musicians used to not have, because somebody else was calling the shots. I’m happy with it. I’m a little more tired sometimes, but all in all, it’s really great for the artist to have more freedom. And the people that listen to the music get to have more of a say in what they want to hear by putting their money behind a project.”
The project that Mean Mary’s fans are currently putting their money behind is a new album called Sweet, which is being crowdfunded on Indiegogo. It’s been more than two years since Mean Mary’s last album, Year of the Sparrow, and James says she’s anxious to release new material. “Sometimes when you record an album, you get so wrapped up in every aspect of it that by the time you’re done with it, you feel like you never want to record again,” she says. “But these last two years, I’ve really built up my excitement by writing new songs and getting new ideas, and it feels so fresh now. I think my music has taken on new directions; I think it’s more upbeat. I feel like there are a lot more rhythm-driven songs that feel really good. I’m super excited about it.”