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A Florida native now based in Nashville, Mean Mary began life as a musical prodigy — she could read music before she could read words — and co-wrote songs at age 5. Photo courtesy of Johnny Giles.

Mean Mary plays a mean banjo

Mean Mary James isn't so mean. In fact, Hank Williams Jr. called her a "sweetheart." But the banjo virtuoso puts on a mean concert of instrumental speed, engaging songs and rich vocals that have entertained audiences around the country.

The singer/songwriter will perform a mix of old-timey music, bluegrass, folk and blues on banjo, guitar and fiddle at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

Master of 11 instruments, Mean Mary is touring the West Coast in support of her new CD, "Sweet," featuring 14 new songs. Roots music website No Depression said Mean Mary has "the voice of a ragged Angel combined with the banjo playing of the Devil.”

Mean Mary’s last CD, released in 2013, was "Year of the Sparrow," featuring songs about ghost pirates, a demon guitar, a horse vs. train race, and girls who can’t stay out of trouble. The original album of folk, bluegrass, blues and Celtic tunes features both her fast banjo picking and her intricate storytelling. Mean Mary’s deep voice (described by The Amplifier as “sexy, vulnerable and yet as powerful as any man’s”) glides from the rich highs of her Celtic-influenced songs, such as “The Safebreaker’s Daughter,” to the swampy lows of the dark, story-song “Sweet Jezebel.” The clear bluegrass harmonies on the fast banjo romp, “Iron Horse,” again show off the depth of her vocal diversity.

A Florida native now based in Nashville, Mean Mary began life as a musical prodigy — she could read music before she could read words — and co-wrote songs at age 5. By age 7, she was proficient on the guitar, banjo and violin, and entertained audiences across the U.S. with her vocal and instrumental skills. She has performed more than 500 live TV shows and more than 4,000 road shows, including national festivals, fairs, cruises, colleges, theaters, clubs and house concerts.

Mean Mary gets her nickname from a song she wrote (with the help of her mom) as a young child called “Mean Mary from Alabama.” The press nicknamed her and she has been known by that name to this day.

A life-threatening automobile accident almost ended Mean Mary’s career. Her right vocal cord was paralyzed. For several months, she could sing for just short periods, compensating on stage with more instrumentals. After six months, the doctors determined the right vocal cord was beginning to unfreeze. With persistence and exercise, Mean Mary got her singing voice back.

Tickets for the March 12 concert are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, $10 for teens 12-17 and free for children under 12. Tickets are available at www.stclairevents.com, the Music Coop in Ashland and by calling St. Clair Productions at 541-535-3562.

Mean Mary will give an intermediate/advance banjo workshop from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday, March 13, at Hilltop Music in the Ashland Street Cinema Shopping Center. Cost is $25. Participants should bring instruments for a hands-on experience.

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