James Reams & the Barnstormers,
One Foot in the Honky Tonk
(Mountain Redbird, 2011)

Born in southeastern Kentucky, James Reams teaches school in Brooklyn, N.Y., in his day job. Otherwise, he works the bluegrass circuit and releases the periodic CD with his band, the Barnstormers. Together, they traffic in the sort of thing this longtime bluegrass geek most enjoys: traditional 'grass -- in other words, the approach inspired by the late 1940s/'50s sound of founders Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs -- which they take into our own time with tasteful adjustments. The effect is in a near-literal sense timeless: it feels neither quite old nor quite new. It always feels good, though.

Reams has a keen ear for songs, and he's a decent writer, too, though on One Foot in the Honky Tonk only two originals (one co-written with Tina Aridas) are featured. I am pleased that he found his way to "In the Corner at the Table by the Jukebox," hard-core trad-country singer James Hand's should-be honkytonk classic. (In that vein, I urge Reams, if he reads these words, to give Aubrey Holt & the Boys from Indiana's "Forgiveness Just Ain't in Her Plan" consideration for his next album.) Where song selection is concerned, Reams is clearly informed and widely listened. So, in fact, am I, and I recognize only about half of the cuts here, and none of those is unwelcome or overcovered.

There's something of the spirit -- the title as much as declares it -- of bluegrass when it was just another variety of country music, heard on the same stages and aired on the same radio stations. That stopped happening around 1960 -- bluegrass may have gone extinct thereafter if not for its adoption by the imminently arriving folk revival -- but that early approach, much of which amounted to acoustic honkytonk, is preserved in reissued recordings from the period and, currently, in the music of Texas bluegrass masters Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show.

Still, the material on One Foot draws as much on modern writers (Kevin Welch/Mike Henderson on the opening cut and title tune, Fred Eaglesmith on "Bailing Again") as on older ones (Stonewall Jackson on "Almost Hear the Blues," the late Harlan Howard on "Goin' Home," folk tradition on "Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea"). Every song, however, has its own set of virtues. Reams's unusual mid- to low-tenor lead vocal, supported ably by the three Barnstormers and guests Barry Mitterhoff (usually heard accompanying Jorma Kaukonen) and Kenny Kosek, is well suited to each. It's hard for me to imagine how anyone who likes bluegrass could dislike what James Reams & the Barnstormers are doing with it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 May 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new