I suspect this is the only Christmas album we’ll be reviewing this year so I’m happy to say that it’s an interesting and varied piece of work. ‘I’d Rather be Merry’ is Mean Mary’s nineteenth album and it applies her usual talents of banjo picking, pure and clean vocals, and a certain amount of songwriting, to a Christmas theme. As always, it’s a combined effort with her brother Frank and brings a certain amount of humour associated with the brother/sister dynamic as well as superb musicianship.

The album is an interesting combination of traditional Christmas carol settings with contemporary elements and a bit of bluegrass thrown in for good measure. ‘I Saw Three Ships’, which opens the album, has a jaunty, contemporary feel with Mary’s trademark clean enunciation, lovely harmonies and the almost obligatory banjo solo, while ‘Jingle Bells’ starts as a traditional carol before a fiddle solo morphs it into a bluegrass setting. The interpretations of the Christmas standards are varied and interesting and enjoyable listening, but it’s the originals that really create the mood of the album with Mary’s characteristic humour and humanity. There are two humorous songs and the album’s closer ‘Ding Dong Day’ which we’ll get to shortly.

‘Cardboard Box’ is a fairly typical humorous Mean Mary song with a Christmas theme involving accidental violence against a partner while ‘I’d Rather Be Merry’ features verbal sparring and wordplay around the names of the siblings Frank and Mary. And back to ‘Ding Dong Day’, which is a previously released Mean Mary song that has a particular relevance in 2023 with its references to over-commercialisation of Christmas and pressure on ordinary people to spend to excess to celebrate a religious holiday.

‘I’d Rather Be Merry’ is released on Friday December 1st on Woodrock Records (WDRK – 4305)

Here’s the video for ‘Cardboard Box’ (don’t try this at home folks):

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’:

Mean Mary, or Mary James if you like, is a whole bunch of interesting characters. There’s Mary James the multi-instrumentalist (with banjo at the forefront), Mary James the singer-songwriter and Mary James the author, just for a start. She’s also the sister of gifted twelve-string guitar player Frank James and daughter of author and songwriter Jean James. All of these facets of Mary James are pulled together in ‘Portrait of a Woman (Part 1)’, which should be followed by Part 2 in September 2023. The first part highlights Mary’s many talents, featuring banjo and violin instrumentals (‘Merry Eyes and ‘Butterfly Sky’), songs that tell stories, songs of life as a touring musician and a few songs that hint at some kind of supernatural menace. It’s a pretty comprehensive package.

The album opens with a powerful display of Mary’s strengths; it’s a full band piece featuring Mary’s vocals, guitar and banjo, Frank’s twelve-string and vocals and it’s a co-write with Mary’s mum. ‘Cranberry Gown’ is a story song set in a traditional folk styling, telling a tale of one important symbol that can make a world of difference to a life of drudgery. The song is circular; the gown is lost and then found again, and self-esteem is restored. The album’s second song ‘Bridge Out’ is a humorous take on life on the road, bringing out the interaction that characterises Mary and Frank’s live performances, with Frank cast as the gloomy, unrecognised sideman. It’s a bit of fun underpinned by some serious observations about the pressures of life as a touring musician.

The touring musician theme reappears on ‘Big Tour Bus’ , featured on Mary’s 2020 album, ‘Alone’, which takes a more serious look at the pressures on travelling musicians from a female point of view. If you’ve heard solo female musicians talk or sing about life on the road, you’ll recognise the story Mary tells. It’s not just difficult, it can be dangerous out there.

Of the remaining songs, there are a few personal standouts. ‘Bette Come Back’ is a real story-teller’s song, building up a brooding intensity about the whereabouts of Bette, who has disappeared during a storm. The turnaround is that Bette is a cat frightened by the thunder who has hidden under the bed. The traditional, folky, ‘Old Banjo’ is on the same theme as ‘Cranberry Gown’; everything will be all right as long as the banjo is there. ‘Only Time to Pray’ conveys a sense of menace from the bowed upright bass notes of the intro, while the album’s closing song ‘Clouds Roll By’ displays Mary’s vocal range in a love and escape song that gently evokes The Band.

This album gives a good idea of the breadth of Mary’s talents, from the breath-taking banjo playing, through the vocal versatility to the quality of the songs she creates on her own and with her mother Jean. Give it a listen and try to catch her live if you can.

‘Portrait of A Woman (Part 1)’ is out now on Woodrock Records (WDRK-4303).

Here’s the video for ‘Cranberry Gown’:

Mean Mary (Mary James) is a renowned multi-instrumentalist and banjo virtuoso, but that only scratches the surface of her talent. She’s also an accomplished songwriter, working on her own and with her mother Jean James (who co-wrote half of the songs on the album). “Alone” is Mean Mary (spoiler alert, I‘ve met her and she’s not really mean at all) actually alone with her banjo, guitar and banjitar, which is exactly what you think it is. The title works on several different levels; it’s a solo performance, but it’s also about the loneliness everyone has been experiencing in recent months and the loneliness of the hard life of a touring musician. Before you get the impression “Alone” is a gloomfest, it has its lighter moments, musically and lyrically.

Mary’s sense of fun shines through in a couple of adaptations of traditional tunes. The blues “Nine Pound Hammer” is updated to “Nine Pound Banjo” while “Little Cindy” gives Cindy a bit of a flirtatious edge as the banjo playing edges into jazz territory. The call and response of the gospel-flavoured “What About Today?” is subverted by a calypso-inflected banjo part that again adds a sense of fun to the song.

Of the more serious songs, “Big Tour Bus” is a look into the totally unglamorous world of a solo touring artist on the road; it’s a bleak and harrowing story that raises the question of why anyone would show such dedication. It’s powerful stuff. The last two songs on the album move away from the humour, nostalgia and road-weariness that dominate the album. “Breathless” is Mary’s take on the Bonnie and Clyde narrative, with the two messages that the wrong turning is all too easy to take and that the end isn’t glamorous at all. “We Never Hear the Song” is a banjo-accompanied anthem to the environment, hinting at the greater purpose behind all of it; the musical arrangement whose complexity we can never comprehend.

The variety of styles across the album’s songs is breath-taking as Mary demonstrates her songwriting versatility and virtuoso picking. There’s gritty realism, unsentimental nostalgia, compelling storytelling and humour in abundance. It’s hard to believe at end of ten songs that the only ingredients are one voice and a couple of instruments.

“Alone” is out now on Woodrock Records.