Remembering Roots Musician Steve James 1950–2023

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.
Steve James with resonator guitar

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.

Steve James in 1992
Steve James in 1992

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.

David Lusterman
David Lusterman

I am a publisher by profession and a lifelong musician. I launched Acoustic Guitar magazine in 1990. I now enjoy the bonus of working closely with my two children, Lyzy and Joey. Due to a healthy lifestyle, a happy marriage, and a passion for my work, I have not aged physically since this picture was taken in 1975.

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  1. I am so saddened by this unexpected news. I enjoyed Steve’s performing and learning from his teaching for many years; primarily at the Centrum Blues week festival in Port Townsend WA, and also at Dusty Strings in Seattle. He was a totally unique character and a prodigious talent both as a performer and as a songwriter. I will miss him very much, but I am so glad I got to know him and benefit from his talents.

  2. Steve was as good as anyone who ever played guitar,. I would joke that they came different but none better. He took time to teach me when I started hanging out at his shows. That’s who he was. We were lucky to have him.

  3. I only met him once and had the opportunity to see and hear him play, accompanied by Del Ray. I was already in love with his music but fell madly i love with this effervescent personality – his obvious knowledge and brilliant, between-song banter. I had dreamed of getting another chance to see him again. Too young for this much talent to leave town…

  4. I remember a captivating roughouse blues performance at a late night gig at Monaghan Harvest Blues Festival in 2000 or so..the best of acoustic blues up close and personal in a small upstairs pub room..R.I.P Steve James…

  5. Unquestionably one of the best players in his style. That’s what he was driven to do in his lifetime and that’s what he did. I knew him as a friend and I’m so proud of him. He was a master player and a wonderful educator. Thank you Steve James. Go listen to some of his recordings.

    • I served coffee to Steve James for a few years in Seattle from around 2018-2020. Steve was a great guy and an incredible musician. I had the pleasure of hosting him as a featured artist at one of my community events in Seattle. I will always cherish that memory. Rest In Peace, Legendary Steve James.

  6. I am deeply shocked to hear this sad news. He was a fabulous musician!
    I just had him over here in Germany for 3 gigs Oct. 27./28./29. 2022. He stayed at my home. Full of enery & telling one amazing story after another!
    I was hoping to have him back here in 2023.
    Another great Blues man done been here & gone!
    Axel Küstner
    Subecksweg 29
    D – 37581 Bad Gandersheim / Germany

  7. Thank you Steve for your wonderful musicianship, your storytelling and
    several unforgetable live performances you gave us at Down Home Kivi
    in Tampere, Finland

  8. Es ist so schade, er war eine Persönlichkeit. Wir hatten das Glück ihn in unserer Gaststätte Zum Stern bei Veranstaltungen vom Blues Club mit Axel Küstner genießen zu dürfen. Es entsteht leider wieder ein Loch, wieder ein Interpret der es verstanden hat einen musikalisch zu verzaubern und. Wir werden ihn nie vergessen, danke Steve

  9. Truly one of the most respected and accomplished roots and blues artists and educators in the world. He was a great mentor and influence as well as friend.

    I’ll never forget him eating most of a container of ice cream in our kitchen while we feigned sleep-at 3AM!

    Blind Willie

    • This ice cream story made me smile. I was lucky enough to meet him when I worked in an ice cream parlor in his neighborhood. He was a regular, never got the same flavor, and always had a story or some tid bit to share. Truly such a cool dude and clearly a true ice cream fan

  10. I had the pleasure of giving Steve and Del a lift from Dublin to Wicklow for one of their gigs, he was a funny, outspoken but courteous guy who was great fun to be around. He ran a workshop for essentially me and a group of friends and and then was happy to stand at the bar telling stories of shows and guys he played with. I remember at another gig he gladly handed his guitar over for people to try and he sat patiently as we all did our best Steve impressions after hours. Truly a unique guy and may he Rest in Peace. John McLoughlin, Dublin

  11. The Segovia of country blues guitar–We played in a rockahillbilly jazz band c.1972 He went on to his solo career and I was happy to see him recognized as the great talent he was.Always visited and shared a meal when I returned to my hometown of Austin or when he was in New England- Last time was breakfast with him and Del Rey as houseguests after a local gigHe will be greatly missed but has left a us great legacy-We are lucky to have known and heard a human being and musician of his caliber –

  12. Stephen , or as I always called him , Stevie ,
    was my dear cousin. I’ve known him all my life and will never forget his kindness, humor and brilliance. I will always admire and respect him for living life on his own terms , to do what he loved , and to bring joy to others.
    My husband, our grown children and all of our extended family loved him as did I.
    Rest In Peace, Stevie. We thank you for enriching our lives .
    Janie

  13. This comes as truly sad news. Steve was one of a kind. A true historian, gifted player and teacher to me. He had a sharp sense of humor, a quick smile and grace. Years ago we were on a festival bill in New Mexico. I was his opener. I finished my set then the weather started to change and dark clouds rolled in with distant thunder. As Steve was getting settled on stage he said to the crowd, “the singer you just heard has a direct line to heaven and I don’t know if I’ll be getting there myself, but if it starts lightning I’m gonna make sure I’m standing next to her!”
    Steve opened minds, opened doors and opened our hearts. I’d say he’s covered.
    Rest In Grace my friend.

  14. I met Steve when he came up to me after a gig and complimented me ony slide playing. He was always supportive and had me foll in for him at Kerrville Folk Festival when he couldn’t make it. We hot to do a couple of shows together.
    A great guy and musician!

  15. I first met Steve in the lower meadow at the Kerrville Folk Fest many many years ago. We got to jam a bit as well as reminisce about working at the Gurian guitar factory in NYC. I came on board shortly after he left and heard his name mentioned many times. But, it wasn’t until meeting him at the KFF that we actually got to speak to each other and do some picking around the campfire.

     
    Steve James / Cicchetti a quirky funny talented guy. When he was in the room and on stage, you knew it — a big presence for sure — as well as a walking talking singing blues musical historical society. It’s probably no stretch to say he influenced tons of pickers —- pick on

  16. A great friend for the past several decades and a such an incredible artist. He was a real dynamo and had so much skill and passion for the type of music he played. Steve was a great character to boot! We spoke recently and it’s a conversation I’ll never forget. God speed my friend and peace to all who knew and loved him. Listening to him now…..

  17. What a great storyteller and guitar player he was. Always enjoyed his writing in Acoustic Guitar on all things guitar and the blues. Met him in Austin and in Ireland at the fest in Monaghan.

  18. I have several of Steve’s instructional books and even bought a second copy of Inside Blues Guitar to give to a friend. He was a phenomenal talent in an area that would not suffermore of his class, skill and great humor.
    I’ll miss him in in hw pages off Acoustic Guitar.
    Farewell Steve!

  19. I enjoyed taking workshops from Steve over the years at Augusta Heritage. He was kind enough to show me his arrangement of Born to Lose. I kept hoping to see him again at Augusta, but not to be.

  20. I am grieved to hear of Steve’s passing. Reminiscing of all the musical workshops, classes, and lessons I’ve attended, I’ve probably been to more of Steve’s than any other teacher. A fine entertainer & luthier that always had a passionate captivating story or history lesson to tell. My life as I am sure many others has been enriched by him. He will be greatly missed.

  21. I was very sorry to hear about the death of such a wonderful musician and teacher. Although personally I was not so much influenced by him he has always been a great inspiration and I always admired him. Perhaps now in his lovingly memory I will turn to his books videos and study his musical ideas in depth…

  22. Shocked and saddened to hear this news. Steve has been a long time friend of mine and we jammed together many times along with doing some shows together and cooking some great meals. Throw a few parties in there too over the years that we survived. His energy, humor and insights will be sorely missed, along with his fabulous music and friendship. RIP Steve.

  23. David: What a huge loss to the blues community and to the music community at large as well. Here is my one Steve James story, as I only knew him slightly. He was in Denver performing at Swallow Hill and stopped into my shop, the Denver Folklore Center, to say “hello.” At the time I was the curator of one of John Hurt’s guitars, the 1964 Guild F-30 that came to Denver with Jerry Ricks, a friend of Hurt’s. I brought out the Guild and gave it to Steve, saying only that it had belonged to a “folksinger.” He picked it up and immediately played “Creole Bell.” You can imagine that the hairs on my neck stood up straight. In fact that was the third time that happened – Geoff Muldaur and Martin Simpson had done the same without knowing that it was Hurt’s guitar.
    I did see Steve at NAMM shows at the National booth, and I may have a video of a NAMM session with Steve, Catfish Keith, and Happy Traum.
    Hopefully, Steve will be remembered through his many offerings to the music world.

  24. He was a really nice guy to me. When I first started playing publicly in the 80’s he would invite to play a song or 2 with him at Beauregard cafe or St. Mary’s bar and grill when he went by Steve Ciccheti. He was truly a master. RIP

    • Thats when i would sit down with a cold beer and chat with Steve Chic James he hated that we made fun, but he took it like a man and the stories continued then he ask me stuff and he would throw me off…ha he was a mentor a scholar and a gentleman…so long my friend…maddog

  25. I met him a couple of times, first at The Acoustic Centre, Wapping, UK and then he played a set locally in a Felpham pub on the South Coast, very friendly guy, steeped in the blues.

  26. Totally gutted to hear this news. He was my guitar hero. I saw him a few times in the Uk. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with him in Denmark Street, London. I had an old Dobro model 30, the really cheap one, he patiently listened to my attempt at a few bars of his Milwaukee Blues and loved my inferior choice of guitar amongst the shiny Nationals that afternoon. Such an inspiring bloke. RIP Steve x

  27. I am terribly saddened to hear of Steve’s passing. His shows at the Cactus Cafe we’re brilliant, energetic, and educational. A great storyteller, his insights on music and everything else were to be treasured. Steve own songs and versions of traditional music set the bar high for anyone else to follow. I always requested “Downbound Train” at the end of the show. I know Steve is headed to a higher realm. Love ya, Steve.

  28. I had the great fortune to study blues guitar with Steve in a workshop at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch back in 2001. I also got the opportunity to attend one of his blues mandolin workshops in NYC a few years later. Steve was a deep fountain of knowledge as well as a captivating performer. In a workshop or on stage, he held court and we loved him for it. I will miss him.

  29. This is sad news indeed. I’ve been a fan for quite some time. Since Two Track Mind I’ve happily bought up all his CDs, Books & DVDs just as fast I could get them. On the occasions I met him wether it was the Austin Guitar show or a winter concert at the Laff in Ottawa, he was always gracious and memorable. Over the pandemic we did some Zoom lessons he was very encouraging had boundless energy. A master there is no doubt.
    To listen to his music, read his instruction or watch him perform you can’t help but want to do it.
    Thank you Steve.

  30. The world just became a smaller place. Thanks for the music, the stories and the inspiration. RIP Steve James

  31. One of the first slide guitar songs I learned was ‘Chicken Stuff’, to which he published in Acoustic Guitar. Thanks Steve and may you RIP.

  32. Such a beautiful cat,this is so shocking to hear. What an original,a complete one off within the tradition. I met him in Austin at the One World Music guitar shop, I loved to hear him play,when he’d stop talking that is!! Sincere condolences to his friends,fans,and family.

  33. Taking lessons from Steve, at Ft Warden, during the Centrum Country Blues Week was lots of fun. He was so energetic and animated. We joked that drinking a few pots of coffee might relax and chill him out.
    He was scholarly but also had some stories. I asked him once about ‘finger picking mandolin’, and his reply was, yes, it has occurred, but, it’s fairly rare, and is most likely practiced by agents of the Devil!

  34. Shocking news! Yesterday morning i got message from Steve’s friend Esa that Steve has passed away. I couldn’t believe it. It was just two months ago that i did spend 3 days with Steve here in Helsinki. I was his “chaffeur” and DJ during his visit in here from friday 4th to sunday 6th of november. We did two shows together (Culture house Malmitalo and restaurant Juttutupa) i was spinning my 78’s during his sets. Steve also played short private houseparty gig on saturday noon. Now it seems like these three gigs in Helsinki were Steve’s last shows. He ended his European tour here. For me this was second time to work with Steve. We did one show here in Helsinki 2015 and it went so nice then that it was naturally we did it again. Well, 78rpm records + Steve’s wonderful music and charisma! What more to you need..
    Since i got this sad news i’ve been remembering these three days with Steve a lot. Steve was so full of energy straight from the ferry terminal (he came to Helsinki from Stockholm by ferry) where we met and stories start to come immediately. I got the feeling that i was the one who is 72 and he’s 49… 🙂 During the shows we find the time to hang around: we walk around Helsinki, we went to the Record fair, we drink a lot (I’m sure Steve drank as many cups of coffee than i drank beer!), we went to market place where Steve bought big bottle of Tyrni (buckthorne)-juice,fish and other healty stuff…we went to jam session on sunday evening… We had a nice time! On late sunday evening i escorted Steve to the hotel where we said “bye-bye and till the next times..”. Steve flew back to Seattle on monday just in time to go to vote in elections.

    My condolences to Steve’s loved ones, friends,fans and colleagues.

    ..and to Steve:YOU are the most favourite personalities in the whole universe! Thanks my friend!

    ukuleleigor(at)gmail.com

  35. Steve was my friend. I know the music world will miss great playing, fine songwriting and wonderful stories. I’m going to miss somebody I could rely on for the hard truths delivered with a wink and a smile. We had many a fine time together that I have always cherished and will all the more so in my time left on this spinning globe of ours.

  36. I knew Steve back in the 70s and 80s in Austin, when I was building guitars and mandolins for a meager living. What a great player! He was associated with the Austin Friends of Traditional Music. I’m honored to have a signed copy of his early album, “A Single Shot”, on which he and John Polacheck play a mandolin I made. He was still using his full name at that point. I haven’t seen Steve in many years, but I’ll still miss him.

  37. I am shocked and saddened about the loss of this great musician. I first met Steve at a Gryphon Strings workshop years ago then took private slide lessons and a workshop when he stayed with the Thompson’s up in Berkeley. Had all his educational books and wonderful CD’s. For years have been coming back to his tabs to figure out his creative arrangements like Stack O Lee, Seeds, etc. He was insightful, always had colorful opinion and quick to elaborate a response to my various questions. Even about how the Stones got their slide influences or describing his Del Vecchio like that of Chet Atkins. He took a request when playing at Lagunitas Brewery and telling me what key a song was in. I last saw him down in San Luis Obispo to pick up his Wood Resorocket from him and Don Young at Don’s shop. What a joy and an amazing projecting instrument to play. I thought I’d be able to reach out to him again. His wonderful musical legacy lives on in his great instructional material, instrument, and music.

  38. Cousin Steve, you lived life on your terms and we deeply respected you for it. You followed your heart and where the music took you. You were beloved by your family. We cherish the memories of so many dinners together, Christmases, Thanksgivings, and Sundays. Your stories and laughter delighted us endlessly — and when you took to serenade us on one of your many guitars, there was no stopping you.

  39. I bought a National Mandolin from Steve at the suggestion of Perry McIlroy. Patty and I got to experience his workshop and spend an hour with him in the underground of Seattle. They say “ when you’re born you cry and the world rejoices. live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.” That’s obviously what Steve did. Rest In Peace my fellow blues traveler.

  40. Thirty years of him staying in the spare room when he drove through town. Talking non-stop while I cooked dinner. I’m not sure he ever slept. We all loved him and were forever entertained by his stories and extraordinary skills on guitar. There will be no one to fill his shoes. I miss him dearly.

  41. Forty-five years of memories. A mighty lucky thing that, at the very time I wanted to learn fingerpicking, Steve was there to show me how it’s done. (That was at Hole in the Wall.) Then a little later, he let me play duets with him. After I got married, he warmed up even more and never failed to hail&farewell Glenda with a big hug. Gruene, San Antonio, Crockett, Leon Springs, Continental Club, Smitty’s, Cactus Cafe…Port Townsend, WA….my living room. Dude, there should have been a bunch more to come, but thank you thank you for what there was.
    (I’d have gone with “Chick Eddy” but whatever, it worked out fine.)

  42. We used to see him in our local pub:- The Bridge Inn in Topsham, Exeter, UK. The man who organised the concerts was Julian Piper and he died a couple of years ago. Steve was a friend of Julian and we would regularly sit and chat with him. He could certainly be pretty scathing in his critique of some famous brands of guitar. I am sure the above will be endorsed by anyone who was privileged to see him play in concert. I’ve also met Del Rey and she is superb in her own right. I spoke with her when she’d just finished playing to an audience of no more than 25 people and then gone to Merlefest in North Carolina USA where she played to an audience of at least 10,000.
    Dave Hards, 14 January 2023

  43. 70 now, and since 18 have been deeply in love with Country Blues finger picking. Inevitably, I learned about Steve and his music. Living in Austin for many years, I was able to attend one of his workshops at the Fiddler’s Green, and was amazed at this man with his love of the art and very firm views of what is NOT good form. (Good: finger an Am7, and then hammer the B string, 2nd fret to make your A7. Easy to get a movement going.) Colling’s and National guitars were his sidekicks. The real -deal man, and kind enough to help a humble player like me.

  44. Just heard that he passed away last week. I am very saddened. I took a few group lessons from him in the early 2000s. He was a great story teller, guitar/blues historian and a great teacher. I really enjoyed the time spent with him and soaking it all in. I dare say my acoustic blues stylings has a lot of his influence. Hopefully I can find some of the audio recordings of lessons I took with him. I think I am about to go down a rabbit hole of listening to his music and picking some of his songs (or songs he played) on the guitar and mandolin.🥲 Boom chang!

  45. I walked into Unicorn Mandolins in San Antonio in 1981 to ask Steve for lessons. He asked me what I could play so I played him a crude version of Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt, and just like that we were off to the races! It was as if he just couldn’t impart enough MJH to me in that one half hour. Over the next 3 years or so Steve taught me what to play and more importantly what not to play… usually identified as “weirdo rock and roll bullshit”
    Steve was foundational to my guitar playing and overall musicianship. To this day I can’t pick up a guitar without playing something I learned from him.
    I have met very few people in this life that are as passionate about anything as he was about his music.
    Rest In Peace, Steve.

  46. Sad news. Steve’s 90s’ album “Two-Track Mind” is the reason I picked up a guitar, and when played the cd this morning, I was amazed once again at the man’s talent, and his passion.

  47. Woah! I am shocked and very saddened to hear about Steve’s passing.
    I corresponded with him just a few months ago (early in September 2022), we had a nice little back-and-forth conversation about his semi retirement, refurbishing guitars, and playing the old acoustic Blues…
    I definitely think he is/was very underrated and under-recognized as a virtuoso level player, and also as a teacher who helped spread the tradition to others, as well as adding his own new contributions to the tradition. I am glad I got to chat with him at least once or twice, even if was from continents away and via email…

  48. Everyone above has said it right. He was a great scholar, a master guitar player and brilliant singer, and a great guy. I first met him in the Pacific NW and later in Brooklyn, where he wowed an audience of less than 20. He needs to be remembered and as others above wrote, he was underestimated or maybe overlooked is more accurate. But all who heard him were overwhelmed by his mastery and respect for his forebears. He also taught you with respect like you were a really serious student. He talked to you like you mattered.

    So, please listen to him if you haven’t. He was a master. Here are my three favorites, which show his brilliance, his attention to what the blues needed often to convey about feelings and desparation, and the light side of blues heroes:

    Fast Texas, his masterpiece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6m4f7HLfCHc

    Cocaine Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wewZn1HwhyY

    Milwaukee Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX1kom2fPVM

    Bliss was his performances with the ukulele blues master Del Ray. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-ntySaahKo

    Okay there is so much more. Get his album Two Track Mind and then keep getting, you have a lot to find!

    Listening may keep away the tears.

    Jeff

  49. So sad to hear of Steve’s passing. He was a great musician, player, singer and storyteller, all in one. On a good night you couldn’t stop him playin’…
    Spent som time with him over the years and hope he’ll be having some nice jams with the old guys up there.

  50. It was an honor to know him. His ability and knowledge of old tome blues was rare. I could listen to him play as long as he would with such passion and wonserful stories. I firsr met Steve in San Antonio in the early 80s. He was helping Dave Sinko at Unicorn Mandolin and he taught me my furst luthiery skills. He helped me make my first top and beacing for a guitar I converted from a claaaical to a sreel string. Steve would surprise us with a Mexican tune now and then. Such a brilliant man. I could go on but others will too and bottom line, pur on a recording of his and lose youself in his powerful songs. A great loss to the blues wirld and a historian who could walk the walk a n d talk the talk. Pick on my friend and thank you.

  51. So many memories … though the last time I saw Steve in person was decades ago in San Antonio, his first performance after the injury to his hand had healed. Everyone was relieved and delighted when his fingers worked just the way Steve James (by any name) could make them work. So now I’m listening to A Single Shot on vinyl followed by The Camp Streeters Live with Pipp Gillette on CD. These sounds will never be obsolete. Thank you, David, for publishing this tribute.