The winner of the 2017 Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest (out of 62 entries) 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.)
The third-place finisher in the Will McLean Best New Florida Song is Jeff Parker from Jacksonville.
Parker, who recently moved to Yakima, Washington, has played finger-style and flat-pick guitar and mandolin professionally for more than 30 years. Starting in the mid 70’s, he played with the bluegrass band, “Surewood” around the Seattle area. He later moved to Alaska and worked as a solo performer and professional mariner in the fishing industry out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. With years of working on the road, Jeff has honed his craft influenced by a large variety of musical styles. In 2003, he published a CD entitled “It’s About Time” consisting of original music (and one Michael Peter Smith cover) and is currently writing a second CD of original works.
In addition to Parker’s original songs, a partial list of cover songs is available on his ReverbNation blog. He often plays in Florida with Anne McKennon, a flutist, in the duo Road Less Traveled. Parker says he is a proud member and supporter of the North Florida Folk Network and the Friends of Florida Folk.
Parker’s 3rd place song in the Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest, “Sugarcane Mill,” describes visual images of the olden days of sugar-cane grinding in Florida.
“My inspiration for the “Sugarcane Mill” song was a request by (folk artist) Suz Grandy to write a song about it for the 40th annual celebration of the Barberville Pioneer Settlement (in North Central Florida) along with many other songwriters and performers,” said Parker.
Parker gathered background on sugarcane mills for the song from the settlement historian and other sources.
“There were some names that stuck out such as Otis Lee who donated much of the equipment for the Settlement and an interesting fellow Wendle LaHoot telling stories from his childhood about harvesting the cane and cooking the juice down and “polecat” candy, which was the crust build-up around the rim of the cook pot from skimming. On harvest day, dinner would be a cane syrup biscuit and half a sweet potato.”
“Sugarcane Mill” will be included in a compilation CD of songs celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the non-profit, historical Barberville Pioneer Settlement in Volusia County.
“Mean Mary” and Jeff Parker will be featured during a special awards presentation at the 2017 Will McLean Festival at noon on Saturday, March 11th. The festival runs from Friday, March 10th through Sunday afternoon, March 12th at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, 7 miles West of Dade City, FL. The festival, named after the Father of Florida Folk, the late Will McLean, features music on five stages including a youth performance stage, a variety of workshops, as well as food vendors and arts and crafts.