Life is pretty sweet for Mean Mary

Mean Mary

Banjo-playing singer returns to Toronto for Winterfolk XIV festival.

Nick Krewen

Music, Fri., Feb. 12, 2016

You know you have a dedicated fan base when they’re willing to finance your barn.

Nashville-based banjo-picking folkie Mean Mary recently conducted a $9,000 (U.S.) Indiegogo campaign to fund her soon-to-be-released album Sweet and build a shelter for her horses.

Her loyal followers happily ponied up for both.

“Yeah, that worked out pretty good,” says the woman born in Alabama as Mary James, who returns to this weekend’s Winterfolk XIV for a trio of gigs at the Black Swan and the Dora Keogh on the Danforth.

Mean Mary is happy to inspire such allegiance due to her multi-instrumental talents — she also plays violin and guitar — and such aurally hypnotic fables of woe as “Sweet Jezebel” and “Rose Tattoo”: the first, a story of the devil and a bewitching red guitar; the second, a deadly tale of a woman scorned.

But there’s undoubtedly a third factor: a nomadic life that could have been plucked from an adventure novel, one that has led Mary to a number of unlikely careers, including novelist, stunt double and TV host of her own cable program, Never-Ending Street.

The youngest of six children, James learned to play guitar at the age of 4. At 5, she wrote her first song, “Mean Mary from Alabam’,” hence the moniker that has stuck to this day.

“Some things that are cute when you are 5 years old aren’t as cute when you’re 18. That has haunted me forever, that first song,” she laughs.

Around the same time, James’s family moved from Florida to Northern Minnesota, living in a tent for three months while they hand-built a log cabin, finishing it in time for winter but lacking such necessities as running water and electricity.

“Growing up with my dad, we always were building cabins,” James recalls. “We never moved in anywhere. We always had to build it first.

“My parents are very do-it-yourself kind of people, so I’m used to roughing it. But it also brings out the control freak in me. You’ve got to do everything yourself. I handle every aspect of my music, from the business perspective to driving myself to the shows.

“It’s good, though, because we’re in an era where independent music is how you’ve got to do it to make a career.”

At 7, a home-schooled Mary was appearing on a regional Birmingham, Alabama, TV broadcast called Country Boy Eddie Show and on the Nashville Network.

The family relocated to California where Mary and her brother Frank pursued Hollywood careers, taking on odd jobs as background actors, stand-ins, photo and stunt doubles.

“I did a few lower budget movies, but I was happy to leave because of the whole selfish Hollywood me-me-me kind of attitude. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for everything. I now do my own stunts in music videos. I learned a lot.”

Twelve years ago, after a head-on collision, doctors told James she would never sing again.

“I hit the dashboard with my throat and it paralyzed the right vocal cord,” she recalls. “The next thing I know I’m waking up and I can barely whisper. Possibly never being able to sing again makes you appreciate certain things you always take for granted. But I made it through that with a lot of prayer and faith and hope, and it gave me new appreciation for being someone who also played an instrument.”

Now fully recovered, Mean Mary has three independent albums to her credit — Walk a Little Ways With Me, Year of the Sparrow and Sweet, destined for April — and co-writes murder mystery novels, as well as some of her songs, with her mom Jean, her touring travelling companion.

And just how mean is Mean Mary, really?

“I can be pretty darn mean,” she laughs. “Just ask my five siblings. That’s why the album’s called Sweet. I’m going for this new persona.”

Winterfolk XIV ran Feb. 12 to 14.

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