The acoustic music world lost one of its most colorful figures when Steve James (aka Stephen James Cicchetti) died on January 6, 2023, at 72, of brain cancer. James was a formidable guitarist, banjoist, mandolinist, singer-songwriter, and storyteller, not to mention a skilled repair tech with a background in lutherie. Following his self-released 1980 debut, Single Shot, James recorded a string of other solo albums, at the same time collaborating with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Cindy Cashdollar, Del Rey, and other artists, and playing live with such guitar legends as Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy. James also penned many excellent pieces for this magazine and was the author of several in-depth instructional books for Stringletter Publishing, all imparting knowledge he gleaned directly from the source, through his friendships with older blues musicians like Sam McGee and Furry Lewis. Here, five friends and colleagues from different corners of James’s musical life—Ana Egge, Michael Gurian, Jorma Kaukonen, David Lusterman, and Greg Ruby—offer their remembrances of the man and his music. —Adam Perlmutter
Lover of a Good Story
By David Lusterman, Acoustic Guitar founder and lifelong friend of Steve James
Am I disobeying the injunction to speak no ill of the dead when I observe that Steve James could be, at times, a bit feisty? Sometimes with justification, like if he saw you pull a flatpick from your pocket during one of his fingerstyle guitar workshops, he might quip, “You’re not planning to use that thing, are you?”
Sometimes with malice aforethought, as when during a thankless cocktail set a pair of clearly self-besotted lovebirds requested “something by the Lovin’ Spoonful”—no doubt expecting “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”—and he gave them a raucous “Bald Headed Lena” instead. Whether it cost him a regular gig, as Steve maintained when telling that story, will never really be known.
During 67 years of friendship, commencing in a kindergarten classroom at P.S. 28 in Yonkers, New York, I either witnessed or heard Steve recount his responses to what he considered disrespectful situations, opportunities for mischief, and, perhaps most often, sheer, pompous, outright ignorance and its twin sibling, bottomless self-delusion.
Behind that feistiness, though, was Steve’s most enduring and endearing trait—his love of a good story, especially one with a lot of detail, a few chances for significant pauses, raised eyebrows, relevant asides, and a well-timed punchline. I might go so far as to venture that Steve’s life was a search for good stories and the people who lived and told them. Just listen to one or two of his poignant, woefully under-appreciated original songs like “County Line Road,” “Talco Girl” [see transcription in this issue], “Sonny Payne,” or “Farewell the Roses,” and the full weight of his narrative gift, to borrow one of his favorite phrases, hits you upside the head.
In person, Steve was rowdy, loquacious, and outsized. In song, his concision is a thing of wonder. What I say sounds sentimental. What he says sounds like the Old Testament.
Born in the summer of 1950 in the Bronx, New York, he was christened Stephen Cicchetti, later confirmed in the name of Saint James, brother of John the Evangelist and the first of the apostles to be martyred. I’m not sure his confirmation brought him closer to his namesake, but it might help to explain his devotion to Skip, Elmore, Etta, and other Jameses who have given life to American vernacular music.
As with millions of us, the children of fully assimilated, second-generation Americans, Steve’s family evinced a sentimental attachment to the old country while essentially abandoning its culture. It’s not surprising that so many of us went searching for roots in our new world home and found them in its music.
Unlike millions of us, though, Steve undertook that search literally. Not content to hear essential American music on record—or in its denatured form on The Ed Sullivan Show—he tracked down his musical heroes in person. First in the clubs, theaters, and festivals of his native New York, and later in their homes throughout the Southern states, he absorbed their craft along with their life lessons and evolved into a complex, mature artist.
As a kid, I often went with friends down to the banks of the Bronx River to roam about and play touch football. Steve would join us on these outings, but football was not his thing: He would traipse down the banks of the river in search of flora and fauna, amphibians in particular. His joy in the natural world was a lifelong passion. While it rarely shows up overtly in his music, I think his amazing virtuosity in coaxing a mix of raucous and soothing sounds from his guitar reflects the sensitivity one sees in keen naturalists and hunters.
Steve belonged to that class of fundamentally decent, morally sophisticated, generous people who go out of their way to appear anything but. Gruff, prickly, dressed like a down-at-heels riverboat gambler, he was a font of kindness and unabashedly appreciative of the talents of others.
What I will miss most in his absence is his bracing honesty. Yes, he loved to embroider a story. And true, he could rant with little reason. But when he looked in the mirror, he saw himself plain and acted accordingly. How many of us can do the same?
They say this world is not our home
There’s some kind of plan we’ll understand farther along
How much farther along?
That’s what they just don’t say
If I ever get lucky, I’ll meet you there
—Steve James, “County Line Road”
A Renaissance Man on Many Levels
By Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist and co-founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna
Sometimes it’s just hard to keep the threads connected. It’s easy to take for granted that there will always be time for one more stitch, but there is never enough time and the unfinished fabric always leaves me wishing I had done more.
Vanessa [Kaukonen’s wife] and I got an email from Cindy Cashdollar up in Woodstock telling us that our friend Steve James had just passed away. For those of you who were fortunate enough to hear Steve manifest his art, you know that you heard one of the great ones. A tradition-based resophonic player, he was never fettered by tradition. I remember him and [guitarist] Bill Kirchen jamming together at the Fur Peace Station more than a decade ago and marveling at Steve’s ability to move seamlessly through styles and genres.
When I would play Seattle, if he was in town he would stop by and we would just talk and invite our souls. We didn’t hang out often and we didn’t work the same circuit but we inhabited the same world. I was so taken by his art that I would frequently visit his website to see where in the world he was and what in the world he was up to. There was never any grass growing under his feet.
He was a Renaissance man on many levels—a writer, composer, player, luthier, guitar broker, and probably many other things I was unaware of. He was also my friend.
All of his recorded work is worth listening to. That said, there is a tune on his American Primitive album called “Talco Girl” that for some reason required that I listen to it frequently. Aside from the stunning guitar accompaniment, the lyrics are more than a movie—they are a miniseries.
So I sit at my kitchen table in our house on top of the hill in Ohio and I quietly reflect on the passing of another friend. Fair winds and following seas, brother—fair winds and following seas!
Jorma Kaukonen’s remembrance was originally posted on jormakaukonen.com and is printed here with permission.
A Ball of Energy
By Michael Gurian, guitar maker and lutherie supplier
Steve James came to me in the late 1960s, wanting to apprentice in my shop in [the] SoHo [neighborhood of New York City]. At that time, he was living on the Lower East Side with a couple of friends. He started with me and worked and stayed for about a year or two.
He was always super positive and zealous, a very smart guy who picked things up immediately. I had him go through every aspect of guitar making and he actually built a guitar.
At the same time, Steve was a great musician right from the beginning. He used to hang out and play at the shop—we all played together—and it was a lot of fun to be around Steve. He was a ball of energy and was always so excited about playing. As with guitar making, he picked up everything fast and was always right on the mark.
Among the many great anecdotes from that era, one of the funniest was when Bob Dylan was visiting the shop. Steve had lost his apartment and was keeping his large pet iguana on a shelf in one of the rooms. Bob was walking around the shop one day, and he saw the iguana and thought it was just a stuffed animal. He jokingly asked if it bit—and when he stuck his out index finger it did just that.
After Steve left Gurian Guitars, he headed down South and eventually wound up in Austin, Texas. I always enjoyed crossing paths with him over the years, often at NAMM shows; we’d go to dinners and bullshit and insult each other. Steve eventually wound up in Seattle, and we would occasionally meet up. Whatever [lutherie supplies] he needed I would give him—up to the end, he was always repairing instruments, as well as playing them.
A couple of years ago, Steve told me he still had that guitar he made in my shop, the first he ever built. I don’t remember much about how it sounded, but it was an interesting instrument; the soundhole was shaped like a heart. I would love to take a picture of it and put it in my memoirs. Unlike some of my other apprentices, Steve never did get into lutherie full-on, but he was such a musician’s musician, and really just an amazing guy.
Ostensible Guitar Repairs—But Much More
By Greg Ruby, guitarist, writer, and educator
I first crossed paths with Steve James in North Carolina at the Swannanoa Gathering Guitar Week about a decade ago. One afternoon in the lunchroom, I joined a transfixed crowd that hung on his every word for story after story of his colorful life on the road. After the table cleared, he turned to me and the subject quickly turned to Oscar Alemán and resonator guitars. When he learned I was working on a book about the guitarist, he declared, “It’s about time someone put out a book on Alemán—there are far too many books out about Django.” Steve was of the opinion—of which he possessed many—that Alemán was a far superior musician to Django simply because he could play authentically in so many styles and wasn’t so flashy. Steve also encouraged me to start playing resonator, which I did shortly thereafter.
I got to know Steve better when he set up shop in Seattle, where I lived at the time. I’d often bring my guitar in for a tune-up. In actuality, what I received was not just improved intonation, but a combination of history, guitar maintenance, music, and life lessons. He was always so damn funny and cranky and encouraging, while also radiating so much warmth. “Greg, are you out of mind? Don’t ever change all the strings on your tricone at once—what do you think holds the cones in place?” But then, he’d take several hours to show me how to re-seat them and mark them in case this accident occurred again.
When Steve told me a story about how [New Orleans jazz musician] Danny Barker tuned his six-string banjo up a minor third in order to play in the horn keys, I was completely incredulous. Steve could tell, and reiterated several times, “No, man, I knew Danny; he’s the one who told me.” That night, I went home and transcribed Barker’s recording of “Sweet Sue” and as soon it hit the harmonics at the 12th fret on a Bb6 chord, it was very obvious Barker’s banjo was tuned up a minor third. The next time I talked to Steve, I let him know, and he said, “Of course I was goddamn right.” Then he laughed, adding, “But it’s always better to go make sure for yourself.”
The last tune-up Steve did for me before I moved to New York was on my 1932 Epiphone Masterbilt Deluxe, which he loved. “I’m glad to see this guitar is going home to New York,” he mused. Then he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Don’t ever sell this one,” after which he pointed out that the weak link of the instrument was the metal pin bridge adjustors. “I have a fix for this that you are going to love!”
When I returned to pick up the guitar, there was a small piece of wood glued in between the top and bottom halves of the bridge. The guitar opened up in in tone and volume—such a simple fix, yet so profound. Knowing Steve would again charge me a working-musician rate, I brought him my recently released Oscar Alemán play-along book. He was beside himself. “This is so cool,” he repeated over and over.
A few weeks later, I received an email from this magazine inquiring about doing an article on Alemán. Without my knowing, Steve pushed me into the world of being a contributing writer to the magazine. Thank you, Steve, for all the stories, encouragement, laughs, and guitar repairs.
He Changed My Life Forever
By Ana Egge, singer-songwriter and guitarist
On Jan 6, 2023, this world lost a truly incredible person. Steve James. My friend and mentor. I don’t know where I’d be without him. At times he was more like a brother/uncle/father to me. When I was 15, he saw me leading a children’s chorus playing the mandolin in Silver City, New Mexico. Later that day I saw him perform at the same venue. He blew my mind! I’d never seen anyone play fingerstyle guitar or slide guitar before. I’d never heard of country blues or bottleneck slide or any of his idols. It’s safe to say that he changed my life forever that night.
The next day I went to the music store to find a recording of the song “Talco Girl” so I could learn it. It was my favorite song from his show and it had gotten stuck in my head. I was convinced that it must be a classic song recorded by multiple artists. Turns out Steve wrote it and hadn’t released it yet. The day after that, I tracked him down and asked for a guitar lesson. We recorded the lesson to cassette. He taught me “Louis Collins” by Mississippi John Hurt and “Talco Girl.” I learned “Louis Collins” overnight. It took me three years to learn “Talco Girl,” which I recorded on my debut album, River Under the Road, a few years later with Steve playing along with me.
I remember a story Steve told me once. He’d just finished writing the song and he shared it with his friend and neighbor, the singer-songwriter James McMurtry. Steve was concerned that it was too simple or it needed a chorus or something, so he was surprised when James said, “What are you talking about? It’s perfect! I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Steve and I also shared the love of lutherie. The year after I met Steve, I began an apprenticeship with the luthier Don Musser in Silver City. Under his tutelage, I built my own guitar, which I still play today. Later on, I worked for Tom Ellis’s company, Precision Pearl Inlay. And through the years, Steve would let me use his shop and tools to work on my guitar.
I moved to Austin, Texas, just out of high school because of Steve and [bassist/singer-songwriter] Sarah Brown. They introduced me to everybody. They helped me get gigs. Steve had a lot to say about everything and a lot to teach and he wanted me to learn everything. Very early on in our friendship he turned to me while we were driving to South Austin Music. He said, “Ya know, you run the risk of being very annoying with all the questions you ask, but I can tell you really want to know, so I’ll keep answering.” Shortly after that he handed me three best-of cassette collections by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Hank Williams and told me to “listen and learn.”
Over the years, at his behest, I listened to and learned from Lead Belly, Elizabeth Cotten, Charlie Christian, Yank Rachell, the Louvin Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and so many more. And when I showed real interest in a song, oftentimes he knew how it was played, in what key, the story behind the song—I mean, how lucky can you be?
When I won the Village-Voyage Songwriter Search that brought me to New York for the first time, in 1995, Steve and Sarah came along from Austin to show me the ropes. Steve grew up in Yonkers and he couldn’t wait to show me the Village, Little Italy, and Chinatown. I could write a book about all the things he first introduced me to, with chapters dedicated only to cuisine! He told me once that he never saw the sun shine until he finally left his old neighborhood in New York. He got out ’cause he followed the music. I got out ’cause I followed the music and Steve James.
Steve was a Skip James devotee. He lived and worked to honor the music and the lives of his heroes as a musician, songwriter, and teacher. His obsession and love for the music and the history of the people who made it beamed love and respect in all directions: simultaneously back in time on those who came before; in the moment on all of us lucky enough to know and learn from Steve in his lifetime; and hopefully continuing on into the future for those yet to encounter his work. I’m heartbroken that he’s gone, and I’m overflowing with gratitude for his kindness, generosity, and constant presence in my life. He was always there for me—there are too many stories—and once I was his one phone call from jail. He played the guitar while my wife and I walked down the aisle.
Thank you forever, Steve. I love you so much. I know you’re playing the blues in heaven.
Steve James on Record
- Single Shot (self-released under the name Stephen Cicchetti, 1980)
- Two Track Mind (Discovery, 1993)
- American Primitive (Antone’s, 1994)
- Art & Grit (Texas Music Group, 1996)
- Not for Highway Use: Austin Sessions 1988–1995 (Settlement, 2000)
- Boom Chang (Burnside Distribution, 2000)
- Fast Texas (Burnside Distribution, 2003)
- Tonight (Artist One-Stop, 2004)
- Steve James + Del Rey (Hobemian Records, 2004)
- Short Blue Stories (Hobemian Records, 2009)
- Steve James Live, Vol. I, Austin TX and Berkeley CA (Hobemian Records, 2016)
- Steve James, Blues and Folk Songs, Volume 1 (Hobemian Records, 2018)
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.