Mean Mary – Alone: Album Review

Ten concise songs – all beautifully imagined and expertly executed by Mean Mary on Alone.

Release Date:  18th September 2020

Label: Woodrock Records

Formats: CD / DL

Mean Mary is phenomenal!  Born Mary James, the youngest of six children in Geneva, Alabama in 1980, she was a childhood musical prodigy, able to read music before she could read words.  She composed her first songs at the age of five and has released 17 albums, of which Alone is her most recent.  Not only (all) that, she’s also a master of at least eight instruments, is the owner of a rich, alluring voice with strong echoes of June Tabor and plays banjo like a 20-fingered speed typist! 

To top it all off, she writes songs that are, in equal measures, thoughtful, incisive, optimistic and entertaining.  We’re talking about a significant talent here…!

Alone is an apt title for this album. It features Mary, ensconced alone in Nashville home studio, to record ten concise songs, all beautifully imagined and expertly executed and accompanied only by either Mary’s guitar, banjo or banjitar (a six-string banjo with guitar tuning, for those who don’t know.)  It’s an intriguing collection that brings together tastes of bluegrass, traditional folk, blues, jazz, gospel, introspection and humour.  Every song draws the listener in to marvel at the breathtaking instrumental work, to relish the vocal delivery and to study and admire the excellent lyrics.

We’ve got songs here about the working musician’s life on the road, stories of a bucolic childhood in rural Florida and songs of hope in adversity. All are served with doses of often self-deprecating humour and, in some cases, hints of evangelism, and it all comes together beautifully.  Every song is a cracker, with quite a few that are real highlights. 

Nine Pound Banjo is a bluesy reworking of the well-known bluegrass song, Nine Pound Hammer.  Mary’s splendidly bluesy vocal is backed by some breathtaking banjo work that combines slides, traditional delta blues licks and lightning-fast bluegrass picking to deliver a song that you’ll want to play over and over. 

Another Barefoot Day is blissful and summery – a guitar song that recalls images of sun-drenched Florida and Big Tour Bus is a tongue-in-cheek demolition of the supposed glamour of the life of a working musician. One that references cheap, fly-infested hotel rooms, lack of sleep, small, disinterested concert attendances and the risks of molestation or falling asleep at the wheel, whilst longing for the comparative luxury of a chauffeur-driven tour bus.

Elsewhere, I Can Be Brave is one of those songs that we all need sometimes in order to inspire us to pick ourselves up and face up to our problems with determination and confidence. Little Cindy is a marvelous piece of jazz pastiche, with some devastatingly good banjo playing and playful, occasionally highly risqué, lyrics. It contains the marvelous line, “Her feet battered those floorboards like good ol’ fish and chips,.” Not a lyric I have ever before heard sung by an Alabama-born, Nashville-resident musician!

For me, the album’s piece-de-resistance is the penultimate track, Breathless.  It’s a moral (maybe even autobiographical – who knows?) story about making wrong decisions – in this case, in the context of a Bonnie and Clyde-type relationship – and living to regret those decisions.  Mary’s delivery of the song, in a hauntingly deep vocal that oozes experience and regret, entrances the listener and instills a deep sense of self-examination.  It’s powerful stuff.

Alone is a beautiful album that anyone with a feel for well-considered lyrics, a liking for exemplary musicianship and an appreciation of a spine-tingling voice should listen to as soon as possible!

Watch the lyric video for Breathless from the album here:

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