By David Lusterman
Steve James, noted American roots musician and songwriter and long-time contributor to Acoustic Guitar, died at home today in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 72. The cause was glioma, a brain cancer.
A native New Yorker, Steve James developed an early fascination with blues music and the guitar through his father’s record collection. Initially self-taught, he studied guitar with Steve Weber and learned lutherie in the lower Manhattan guitar factory of Michael Gurian. James then moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, the first of several homes in the South, in search of seminal fingerstyle guitarist Sam McGee, whose music he would transcribe for his first book, Old-Time Country Guitar (Oak Publications). He next moved to Memphis, where he was mentored by bluesman Furry Lewis, and then to San Antonio, where he worked at the Institute of Texan Cultures and performed frequently at its Texas Folklife Festivals.
A lifelong touring soloist, James moved to Austin, Texas, and began recording regularly in 1993 with the release of Two Track Mind (Antone’s), followed by American Primitive, Art and Grit, and Boom Chang, collaborating with artists such as Danny Barnes, Gary Primich, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Cindy Cashdollar.
James was also a regular musical partner of guitarist and ukulele standout Del Rey; they recorded Steve James + Del Rey (Hobemian Records) in 2004.
James’ taste for early American rural musical cultures extended to a fascination with old musical instruments, and he amassed a collection of “pawnshop” guitars, mandolins, and exotica on which he focused his well-learned and well-honed lutherie skills. His fascination with resonator instruments culminated in the release of National Reso-Phonic’s ResoRocket Steve James signature model.
A loquacious, outspoken raconteur and amateur historian, James was also a gifted teacher and well-known to habitues of the Kerrville Folk Festival, the Swannanoa Gathering, and the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop, among many such summer events.
His instructional videos include Blues-Roots Guitar and Learn to Play Blues Mandolin (Homespun) and he was the author of many instructional books, including Roots and Blues Fingerstyle Guitar, Roots and Blues Mandolin, Inside Blues Guitar, and Fingerstyle Blues Songbook (Stringletter).
To his colleagues at Acoustic Guitar, Steve James was not only the knowledgeable, reliable author of 185 well-regarded articles and reviews, he was a cherished friend, close collaborator, and the source of endlessly entertaining tales from the road.