Mozart began composing at four. Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire before he turned 10. Mendelsohn, that slacker, waited until he was 15 to complete his first symphony. But these luminaries of the musical world have nothing on Mary James – Mean Mary. By age five, Mary was composing original songs; by seven, she was an accomplished singer, banjo, guitar and violin player. She also appeared regularly on a local television show. Later this month, Mary brings her Blazing tour to the Lido Marina Village. And while most artists tour in support of a new album, Mary is also promoting her latest novel, “Hell is Naked.”
Mary James is the youngest of six children born to Jean and William James. Mary was born in Alabama and raised in Florida, until her peripatetic parents decided to fulfill a homesteading fantasy of building a log cabin in the frozen wilderness. The family moved to Minnesota near the Canadian border. “It was a Swiss Family Robinson thing,” she says.
The family lived in a Visqueen tent during construction. They had no electricity and no running water. (Jean had to shoot a black bear after it attacked the tent.) The family moved into the unfinished cabin just ahead of winter. An oil stove provided heat, a kerosene lamp provided light and the family amused itself by reading books and by listening to a tape cassette compilation of Hank Williams, Jr. and Dolly Parton tunes. And Mary discovered music.
The birth of music
“My parents bought an old guitar and the strings were about an inch from the neck,” says Mary. Her parents wanted the entire brood to be musical but only Mary and her older brother, Frank, stuck with it. The family returned to Florida. Jean financed Mary’s burgeoning musical career by a variety of endeavors, including collecting venomous snakes for the production of antivenom. At age six, Mary cut her first album. One of the first songs she co-wrote with Jean was “Mean Mary from Alabam’.” Her moniker was born.
“I was bored in school,” says Mary about her decision to quit traditional school and do home study (at the end of second grade). During this time, she was a regular on the “Country Boy Eddie Show,” which was broadcast from Birmingham. When she was nine, she passed an equivalency test, scoring at the 12th grade level.
When Mary was 18, she, Frank — a gifted musician in his own right — and her parents (the other children were by now grown) drove out to California. Mary and Frank had caught the eye of a music agency and Jean had signed a deal with a literary agent. During her three years in Hollywood, Mary’s music career took a backseat to film work. She appeared as a stand-in, photo double and stuntwoman in a lot of “low-budget stuff” (her words). She was the stunt double in 2000’s “Sacrifice,” a television movie starring Michael Madsen. “I was the murderer in that one,” she says. Mary also played the pregnant wife of a drug dealer on “Six Feet Under.”
Mary is no longer involved in film and television, mostly because music consumes so much of her time. She produces her albums. She is the videographer for her videos. She manages her own bookings, handles the finances and sees to the day-to-day details of running her career. “There is so much more power now as an independent artist,” she says. Gone are the days of the various gatekeepers and the ‘play by our rules or don’t make it’ power structure. “The last 10 years I’ve seen the most success,” she says. “I don’t work with a record company; I don’t work with a manager. It’s just me doing my thing and the fan base.” She has released 15 albums.
Mary’s latest book, “Hell is Naked,” co-written with Jean, is an action-adventure story set in Hollywood. The protagonist is a detective who also does background work in films. She based the character on another brother who is a retired S.W.A.T. officer. “He’s a bumbling, six foot six oaf, like my brother,” she says. Mary and Jean have penned many books. Their next work will be a music mystery trilogy. Since Jean often accompanies Mary on her tours, they have a lot of time on 12-hour drives to work on story ideas and projects. “She’s really the bulk of the talent,” says Mary.
Mary’s Blazing tour pulls into Newport Beach for two dates. She’ll be playing January 20th and February 1st at Lido Marina Village. Both shows are free; all ages are welcome. For more information, visit www.meanmary.com. You can find additional information and photos athttp://www.meanmary.com www.meanmary.com/epk. Her latest video, Iron Horse, is up on YouTube.