Mean Mary a musician from birth
Published 9:17 am Thursday, May 2, 2019
Sometimes trying to think of what to write in this space is difficult. Today, I’m listening to Mary James for inspiration.
She didn’t disappoint, and her life story is like a song in itself.
Her family apparently didn’t stay in one place very long. They moved to Minnesota when she was 4, lived in a homemade plastic tent while they constructed a cabin from the trees, with primitive tools. They barely got through before winter set in. No electricity. No running water. They spent the winter cutting firewood and burning it.
Then her older brother, who had joined the Navy, sent the family a guitar and a compilation of songs he liked, along with a battery-powered tape player.
Before long, Mary had memorized all of the songs, and even vocalized the instrumentalization.
Her parents weren’t dumb. Her mom was an author, her father a veteran. They recognized the talent in their young daughter.
They bought guitar books, and started to teach all five of their children at home how to play. Mary and her brother Frank ended up making it a career.
She learned to read music before she could read words. She had written songs before she started kindergarten. With the help of her mom, she wrote her theme song, “Mean Mary from Alabam” and the name stuck.
She’s been Mean Mary ever since.
The family went back to Florida (where they had lived before moving north), her dad had retired and her mother started an organic truck farm to support the family and Mary’s musical appetite. She built and sold live animal traps and collected venomous snakes for anti venom production, and reptiles, amphibians and mammals for wholesale distributors.
You read it right. They weren’t the suburban types.
By now, Mary was playing guitar, the banjo and fiddle, recorded her first album at age 6 and spent five hours a day on instrument and vocal practice. She also performed live. By second grade, her schedule was so hectic she left school to be home schooled, and performed even more.
So she chunked her school studies for music? It appears so, but at age 9 she passed a state required test at a 12th grade efficiency level. She had read Gone With the Wind at age 7. Her brother Frank was about the same, performing music and graduating high school at age 15.
The duo found out they liked folk music better than country. They quickly became a popular historical folk group. They stayed busy.
Their mom bought them a horse, and they started playing music while on horseback. It led to gigs at parades and wild west shows and re-enacted bank robberies. Mary’s horse had bucked her more than once, breaking bones and causing bruises. She continued to perform.
Then, they packed it all up and moved to Los Angeles.
Mary and Frank were regulars on movies and television shows. Mary lived in a camper on the back of her truck. Then she was in a car wreck, her head hit the windshield and she was feared dead. Her right vocal cord was paralyzed.
She continued to work hard on a farm, and worked her vocal cords. She got her vocal cord and voice back.
Oh yeah, she’s an award-winning novelist, too, has had her own TV show, has written plays and has popular YouTube videos. I’m sure there’s more.
Mean Mary isn’t mean at all, but she’ll be at Junker’s Mill in Downtown Mocksville at 7 p.m. Saturday as part of the Daniel Boone Family Festival. It’s a free show, and her music can be inspirational and haunting. Her banjo picking is unique, and definitely worth hearing.
Bring a chair, come and listen. You’ll be glad you did.
– Mike Barnhardt