A Musical Life: Tom James

Apr 18, 2014

Credit Courtesy photo

A native of Oklahoma City, Tom James has lived in Denver, Boston, and rural Kansas. “My musical roots grew from folk albums my older sister gave me when I was in high school, watered by the Walnut Valley Folk Festival, late night parties after shows at the Denver Folklore Center, and then the Market Street Forum in Wichita,” he says. James hosted the monthly Acoustic Jam at Grandma’s Farm for nearly a decade and has been attending the Artichoke Songwriters Circle since shortly after its inception more than a decade ago.

My name is Tom James. I’m a Wichita guy. I’ve been here since ’75. I play music when I can. I’ve never had a huge interest in performing. I’ve also been involved in jams, people getting together, open mics.

I’m pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool folkie. It took me 10 years to learn how to play guitar and sing at the same time. And then it took me another 10 to learn to do them both in the same key.

I went to Denver after high school. The Denver Folklore Center was going full blast. Utah Phillips told me, “You ought to learn to play this music yourself. It’s your music. It’s being stolen from you every day and be sold back to you.”

You think about a song like “Banks of the Ohio.” This guy takes the woman he loves and stabs her and throws her in the river. This is a kid from a rich family getting the wrong girl pregnant—from the wrong side of the tracks—and Daddy says, “You gotta go take care of this, Son.” That’s the tragedy of a song like that. Wow. That’s pretty intense stuff.