One of those strange phenomena arising out of the pandemic is that many artists have spent a lot of time writing and maybe even recording but haven’t released too much material. It makes sense to keep the material under wraps while there’s no way of promoting it by touring; now that artists can tour again, there’s a lot of material waiting behind the floodgates and it’s starting to break through now. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Mary James (Mean Mary) must have a huge number of songs pushing at the dam; she’s just released the first of two albums of songs and four weeks later she’s releasing the first of four EPs. The albums are being released under her Mean Mary solo identity, while the EPs are under the imprint Mean Mary & The Contrarys with bassist David Larsen and drummer Allen Marshall and have a more electric feel with Mary playing electric guitar, electric banjo and keys in addition to her usual acoustic banjo. Of the four songs on ‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1), three are co-writes with her mother Jean, while the opener, ‘Penelope Rose’ is a solo effort.

And that’s a good place to start. ‘Penelope Rose’ is driven along in a country-rock style by a banjo riff and a melodic electric bass line as it tells the story of the archetypal criminal woman of mystery who enthrals everyone including the detective sent to bring her in. ‘Fugitive’ combines a relentless driving and menacing arrangement with a pure, clear vocal at the high end of Mary’s as it deals with another folk archetype, the kid who develops an obsession with guns and loves a woman who inconveniently has a lover already. It ends the way you would expect after a musical journey that features over-driven and wah-wah guitar solos and hints of Western film themes.

And while we’re talking about folk archetypes, ‘Seven League Shoes’ taps into the European folklore idea of seven league boots, relating it to the need to keep moving fast in today’s music business in order to stay ahead, or sometimes just to stand still. Mary’s banjo drives the piece along in a country style up to the coda where the change in speed represents the frantic running, even including a stumble, as the piece rushes to a close.

‘Sparrow Alone’, which also appears on Mary’s album ‘Alone’ closes the EP. It’s played in a traditional folk style with instruments that would be more at home on a rock piece, including keys, and it features another folk archetype, the plucky little sparrow small enough to escape the violence of the storm. In the second half of the piece, the band evokes the power of the storm before the closing banjo solo lifts the mood and takes us to a place of survival and renewal.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is an interesting shift in direction for Mean Mary. The quality of the songwriting and Mary’s playing is as high as ever and the band dynamic creates new ways of interpreting the songs. It’s an impressive start to the project and whets the appetite for the following three volumes.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is out now on Woodrock Records (WDRK-4304).

Here’s the video for ‘Penelope Rose’: