James Reams
& the Barnstormers,
Troubled Times
(Mountain Redbird, 2006)

James Reams is a Brooklyn schoolteacher, but he grew up in southeastern Kentucky, and he sings like it, in a soulful, open-throated manner. Still, it's a distinctive voice and a pleasing one. In the Barnstormers he has an excellent band: Mark Farrell (fiddle, mandolin, baritone vocals); Carl Hayano (bass, tenor vocals); and Mickey Maguire (banjo). Guests Kenny Kosek (fiddle) and Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin) appear on a number of cuts.

Reams also chooses his material well, picking songs and tunes, old and new, that have not been overdone (only the traditional "Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues" is likely to be immediately familiar to bluegrass buffs), while dropping in some very nicely done originals (most written with Tina Aridas). Songs like "Hills of My County" and "Eye of the Storm," as good as any bluegrass songs being written these days, ought to be in the repertories of other bands as well.

Reams' band is out of the Flatt & Scruggs school, updated and given fresh life and -- dare I say? -- something of a political subtext. It is not hard to detect a certain unfashionable concern with social issues, in particular poverty, labor and the environment. None of this is in any way heavy-handed or preachy, but it's one more thing I like about this recording.

Besides the good music on the first disc, there is a second -- a DVD -- with nearly two hours' worth of interesting material. The longer of these follows Reams and his band as they perform in various New York-area venues. Reams, a shy, soft-spoken man, comes across as a modest, uncharismatic everyman who just happens to be a gifted and compelling musician. Another, shorter documentary consists of snippets from Reams' interviews with some first-generation bluegrass artists, including Melvin Goins, Bobby Osborne and Art Stamper.

by Jerome Clark
24 June 2006

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