Mean Mary, who will be playing at the upcoming Little Everglades Ranch Days, held February 11-12, won the state Best Florida Song Contest. She and others will also be performing at the Will McLean Festival held March 10,11, and 12 in Dade City at Sertoma Youth Ranch.
The winner of the 2017 Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest is Mary James, better known as “Mean Mary,” in the music world. Though she resides now in Tennessee, her roots are in Florida and Alabama (Her family lived in the North Florida area when Mary was born, but the nearest hospital was in Geneva, Alabama!).
James, who also plays banjo, fiddle, guitar and eight other instruments, is no newcomer to the folk music scene. She began playing the guitar at age four, could read music and wrote her first song at age five, and recorded her first album when she was six. Her extensive performance schedule soon made school attendance difficult, so at the end of the second grade she went into home study and began appearing daily on the Country Boy Eddie Show, a regional TV program out of Birmingham, AL. At that same time she also appeared regularly in Nashville, Tennessee at the Elvis Presley Museum, on the Nashville Network, and on Printer’s Alley.
When Mary and her frequent music partner, brother Frank James, grew weary of the commercial, country-music scene, they started a tour of historic folk and Civil War era music. It wasn’t long before they were one of the most sought after historical folk groups in the country. Their careers eventually took them to the bright lights of Hollywood, California where they were involved in various areas of the film industry.
James is now based in Nashville, Tennessee from which location she tours extensively across the US and internationally. She has her own Nashville TV show, Never Ending Street—a documentary/reality type show depicting a touring musician’s trials and joys. She is an endorsing artist for Deering Banjos—Deering has named her their Goodtime Ambassador. She writes and produces music for herself and other artists, and has recorded 14 albums, her latest being, “Sweet.”
Her winning song in the 2017 Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest “Choctawhatchee Waltz” was directly influenced by her family’s gypsy lifestyle. While growing up, her family lived close by the Choctawhatchee River in North Florida. The river’s name was taken from the Choctaw Nation and the Choctaw word hacha (river), literally the “River of the Choctaws.”
“It was so wild and undeveloped—like undiscovered territory. As a kid I could imagine I’d stepped far back in time or into a magical place. Those memories bring back a rush of longing for those wild and simple times. It was something I had to capture with my music,” said James.
“Mean Mary” also scored a second-place finish in the 2017 contest with a song she co-wrote with her mother, Jean James, (a 40-year Florida resident currently living in Tennessee) entitled, “We Never Hear The Song.” The song tells how people are surrounded by the music of “Mother Nature,” but maybe never realize what they are hearing.
Their song was inspired by Jean’s time hunting snakes and other reptiles, some of which were milked to make antivenom, some went to zoos, and some were shipped overseas for farm rodent control. Part of the reptile money supplied her daughter Mary with musical instruments. At times Mary would accompany her mom on those excursions.
“I saw beavers and otters and giant turtle slides,” Mary explained. “In the river waters I could watch the sturgeon, a fish whose ancestry dates to prehistoric times. It was a real chance to see and hear nature—unbroken and untouched.”
Mary and Jean James have also co-authored five books, two of which have won first place awards: “Sparrow Alone on the Housetop” (P & E Reader’s Choice award) and a Florida novel, “Wherefore Art Thou, Jane?” (Readers Favorite International Book Award winner for best mystery novel.)