James Reams & the Barnstormers,
(Copper Creek, 2001)

Traditional bluegrass is thriving in, of all places, Brooklyn, the home base of native Kentuckian James Reams and his Barnstormers. It's a four-man crew, with Reams on guitar and lead vocals, Mark Farrell on mandolin and fiddle, Carl Hayano on bass and Mickey Maguire on banjo. The band is joined here by two guest artists, fiddler Kenny Kosek and mandolinist Scott Risner, and the results not only storm the barn, but set fire to it as well.

From the first track, "Freight Train Blues," this is top-notch bluegrass, with a strong, high-lonesome lead vocal and a tight, sweet-picking band. "Hard to Love" shows off a close harmony vocal sound that will have you drooling if you miss the way bluegrass used to sound, and you can't get much deeper into the mountains than with a song called "Coal Dust in My Soul." Its roots are deep, and Reams' lyrics contain telling details: "Cigarette in the morning, cold coffee at noon / Bourbon at quittin' time, I'm digging my tomb."

"Barnstormin'" is the first of several tight, zippy instrumentals. It's played beautifully, and has some fun and unpredictable chord changes. That same unpredictability crops up in "The Cincinnati Southern," an original train song, and a good, solid one. The traditional vein is mined next: "Black-Eyed Suzy" boasts a fine mando solo, the fiddle shines on the old-timey "First Whippoorwill," and "Black Mountain Blues" demonstrates everyone's picking skills.

The lyrics of the next original, "Dogwood Tree," are lovely, but the two-chord tune makes it less interesting than it could be. "Buffalo Creek Flood," on the other hand, is the CD's dramatic highlight, a powerful denunciation of the Buffalo Mining Co.'s 1972 accident in which a sludge dam burst, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homeless. The mood is lightened by another instrumental, "Birch Brook Exit," followed by "Kentucky River," Reams' and frequent co-writer T. Aridas's tribute to the home state. The album comes to a solid end with the moving "Is She Praying There" and the ballad, "Roses in the Snow."

It's always rewarding to hear traditional, old-fashioned bluegrass sung and played as well as Reams and the Barnstormers do it. From their Colonel Sanders ties to the barn siding on the booklet, this one exudes the golden age of bluegrass. If that's your golden age, you won't be disappointed.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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