Mean Mary & the Contrarys “Hell & Heroes Vol. I”

Woodrock Records, 2022

Dark tales to virtuoso gothic banjo.

Mean Mary James is nothing if not prolific. If you think you’ve just read a review of her latest release, you have: that was ‘Portrait of a Woman’. Barely a month later Mean Mary launches another four part project with ‘Hell & Heroes Vol 1’. In only four tracks she takes her virtuoso banjo picking, guitar playing and fertile imagination off in a more intense, darker direction. ‘Gothic bluegrass’ might sound hyperbolic, but it does describe her haunting, echoing vocals and pulsating electric banjo, all driven furiously by her excellent band the Contrarys, bassist David Larsen and drummer Allen Marshall.

Family has been integral to Mean Mary’s passage from child prodigy through an itinerant life both geographically and creatively. She still writes much of her material with her mother, Jean. Their collective determination enabled her to overcome the trauma of a lethal car accident that very nearly finished such a promising career. Through her sheer willpower and effort she regained her redundant right vocal chord to resume singing. Although some time ago, that same resolve comes across in this new EP.

The opening picking on ‘Penelope Rose’ shakes with the apprehension of the detective newly arrived in town to investigate a string of murders linked to someone, “they call her the woman with the rose tattoo”. Mean Mary’s only solo write, her soaring vocals, relentless banjo runs pushed further by the Contrarys embody the detective’s frustration at his lack of progress, or is he falling in love with his prime suspect?

Crime persists in ‘Fugitive’. An opening line of ‘Johnny loved his daddy’s gun’ warns this is not going to turn out well. And it doesn’t. Harder electric solos add to the drama of how the sherrif’s son met his end.

‘Seven League Shoes’ gives an insight into Mary’s own resolve, “So I’ll run, until I fall/ Then pick myself up again/ l’ll tough it out, that’s all”, could be autobiographical, an unsentimental look at a life on the road. Her blistering banjo solo is all the evidence needed that this is her reward. ‘Sparrow Alone’ pursues this introspection. A gentle banjo line gives space for Mean Mary’s voice to soar above her cares, orchestral thermals propelling her liberty higher still.

Multiple projects can face the obvious pitfall of too many ideas receiving insufficient attention. Mean Mary & The Contrarys do not fall into that trap. ‘Hell & Heroes Vol 1’ is very different to her concurrent ‘Portrait of a Woman’ and both deserve acclaim. We look forward to the second instalment.


About Lyndon Bolton 140 Articles
Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between
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