Nashville producer Fred James is as much a documentarian as he is musician and entrepreneur, and his Bluesland Productions is considered one of the world's foremost independent music companies devoted to blues, soul, and American roots music. On February 3, 1954, Fred James was born in San Antonio, TX, the family moving to Wichita, KS, where he was raised. His father, Fred James, Sr., is a noted jazz trumpet player who recorded with the Johnny Harris Quartet in the '70s. His uncle, Doug James, is a New York studio musician who has worked with Paul Butterfield, Orleans, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and many others. With radio in the mid-'60s being very eclectic, and with jazz and blues constantly played around the house while he was growing up, Fred found that he liked it all, inspirations and influences coming from Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Buck Owens, and, according to the producer/musician, "all of the rock groups." His first attendance at a concert was the Jimmy Smith Trio with the Ramsey Lewis Trio; the second was a Dick Clark road show with Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon, Keith Allison, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and the Animals.
To say his family is musical is an understatement, with two of his brothers also in the business as recording artists and studio musicians. James moved to Nashville in 1973, as it was still wide open to young talent in those days. He immediately found work in the studios and on the road with artists like Billy Joe Shaver, Vern Gosdin, and Townes Van Zandt, among others. Listed in Frets magazine as one of Nashville's top studio musicians, James had an artistic side that also leaned toward pursuing a career in songwriting. While writing for Mel Tillis' publishing company, he got his first cut with the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. In 1977 he recorded his first LP, Alfred James, for the tiny Cascade label. By the early '80s James was playing guitar with Dr. Hook and the band was using the Memphis Horns to augment the lineup. When the tour was over, James was asked to become the singer and guitarist with the Memphis Horns. He did this for the next two years until the Horns became too busy in the studio to continue live work.
At this point he began writing for Audigram Music, home of J.J. Cale. He wrote "Full Moon on Main Street," which was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award as Best Blues Song of 1987. The following year he wrote "Lightning" for Johnny Winter's Winter of '88 album. The success of these two songs enabled James to start his own publishing company and really pursue the thriving "blues boom" of the '90s. Song after song started being recorded by artists like Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Junior Wells with Bonnie Raitt, Son Seals, C.J. Chenier, Katie Webster, and Charlie Musselwhite, and James secured five Grammy nominations in the process. He formed Freddie & the Screamers with members of the Amazing Rhythm Aces and Willie Dixon's band. The group recorded four CDs for various small labels in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.
The list of people Fred James has played guitar for is a veritable who's who of pop, soul, jazz, blues, and roots music: Johnny Copeland, Arthur Williams, the Jelly Roll Kings, Billy Joe Shaver, Bo Diddley, the Carter Brothers, the Memphis Horns, Dr. Hook, the Excello Legends, Tommy Tutone, Townes Van Zandt, Dickey Lee, the Delta Jukes, Black Tie, Vern Gosdin, Bobby Hebb, and many, many others. As a producer, he recorded the likes of the Sam Lay Blues Band, Homesick James, Frank Frost, Roscoe Shelton, and Earl Gaines for labels like Black Top, Evidence, Telarc, Ichiban, Appaloosa, Hightone, Black Magic, and on and on. With this success, Bluesland began acquiring classic master recordings from the '50s and '60s, purchasing the catalogs of Champion, Poncello, Ref-O-Ree, and Bullet/Sur-Speed/Delta. This classic blues and soul has been reissued all over the world.
He has performed across Europe with his wife, Mary-Ann Brandon, and also with Frank Frost and the Jelly Roll Kings, the Excello Legends (Roscoe Shelton and Earl Gaines), and Charles Walker and Johnny Jones. James was the guitarist for the Amazing Rhythm Aces since their 1990s reunion, and can also be heard on their Nothin' But the Blues disc. James has also recorded three solo albums and tours and performs with his own group when time permits. He started his own ROAD Records label in partnership with Brandon, with a release that features his father on trumpet and members of the Amazing Rhythm Aces guesting.
In his spare time he is usually found writing liner notes for Aim Records reissues of the Sound Stage Seven series featuring music by Moody Scott, Earl Gaines, and Geater Davis, and other labels like Black Magic Records, Ace Records (U.K.), and Germany's Bear Family Records. A book entitled The Big Bang: The American Musical Renaissance 1925-1975 was in the works in 2006.