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  • Jonathan Widran

JAMES THOMAS, The Loves of My Life

With the upcoming, highly anticipated release of the James Thomas Band’s latest, perfectly titled album The Loves of My Life and their simmering, heart-tugging new single “Eileen,” the multi-talented, Virginia based soul-blues (with a tinge of country) rocker continues to ride the wave of an inspiring career renaissance.

It began in the late 2000s, a few years after the passing of Thomas’ wife of 25 years. Still in a dark place and emotionally distant from his vibrant, earlier musical lifetimes, he ran into his old friend, keyboardist/bassist/drummer David Floyd, who convinced him to start writing music again. To jump start his creativity, Thomas, despite his initial skepticism, posted songs from his long ago released album Ocean Song online – and quickly hit the viral jackpot. In its first two months, over 227,000 listened to the resurrected recording, resulting in an astounding 1.5 million-plus plays.

Greatly encouraged and getting his long set aside creative mojo back, Thomas, Floyd and guitarist Pat Walters formed the James Thomas Band and recorded the multi-faceted concept album The Courthouse and the Redemption. Produced by Thomas, who sang lead and played acoustic guitar, the recording, driven by country rock foundations heavily seasoned with blues/rock influences, earned him an enthusiastic following in Europe – and the unique experience of being a middle-aged musician earning a following dominated by fans of the ages 13-18. The music of the James Thomas Band is particularly popular in Spain, Italy (from Sicily to Milan), Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia and Venezuela.

In the handful of years since the release of The Courthouse and the Redemption, the James Thomas Band has evolved significantly. “Eileen” and the other 10 tracks of The Loves of My Life – which will also be released in a special limited vinyl edition - feature the explosive new lineup of renowned veteran guitarist/producer Andre Ferreri, lead guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboardist Mat Sigmon and lead guitarist Alan Rueda, who began performing in bands with Thomas when the two were in their late teens. Ferreri and Sigmon are graduates of the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston.

Ferreri has multi-genre history that extends back several decades and includes performing with the funk/soul band Powerhouse and jazz/rock instrumental group Airstreeam, performing with the Charlotte Symphony and Greensboro Symphony and doing sessions and live performances with legendary artists like Brook Benton, Maurice Williams, Dave Valentin, Herbie Mann and Sam Moore. Rueda’s electric guitar expertise and years of performing experience mirrors and complements the explosive power of Ferrari and Sigmon’s formal jazz-based education to create Thomas’ most potent lineup yet.

“We’ve really come together as a cohesive band with great chemistry these past few years, and we’re looking forward to getting out and sharing the new songs live,” Thomas says. “The Loves of My Life is more focused than the ‘Courthouse’ album, which had me exploring all kinds of genres, from jazz to blues to pop. Because I grew up in Durham, that country twang will always be a part of me, yet as a unit we’re all about soulful blues-rock and we wanted this album and all future recordings to reflect what we’re really great at.

“I think ‘Eileen’ in particular will open up our sound to audiences on both sides of the Pond,” he adds. “It resonates as a rocker, a country song and a pop tune, and allowed my voice to be at its most emotional. I think people are responding to it so positively because it tells a good story. This takes me back to my earliest country influences, including Hank Williams, Sr., who was a masterful storyteller. That’s basically what country music is about. When I originally wrote ‘Eileen,’ I didn’t realize it would become such a meaningful song to people. Yet it resonates because it’s honest and true and really strikes a chord.”

While most of the original tracks on The Loves of My Life are very recent compositions, “Eileen” – a co-write with Ferreri - is unique in that Thomas penned the original version of it when he was just 17. Living in Durham, he was moved to tears by the local story of a Duke co-ed of that name who was killed by a trash truck when she was distracted walking and stepped off a curb. Though he never met the girl, he turned the tragedy into a personal reflection of losing a great love who both brought him down and “picked me up like a clown.”

Other key tracks on The Loves of My Life include two previously released singles “Siren” and “Meet Me on the Corner.” “Siren” is an edgy mid-tempo rocker (heavily influenced by the classic “All Along the Watchtower” that finds Thomas refashioning the classic Odyssey tale about a lonely woman who is searching for true love but has a hard time connecting with men. A funky old school horn-drenched soul-rocker, “Meet Me on the Corner” is about a guy trying to get closer to a sheltered girl whose parents disapprove of him.

Another can’t miss gem is “Soul Shake,” which Thomas describes as “a religious-like rock song about intense desire, confronting mortality and looking forward to a love of a more eternal nature. “Suicide Blues” is a poignant classic styled rocker about a chronically troubled singer in one of Thomas’ previous bands who tried to leap off a mountain years ago during a photo shoot. The lone cover is the gentle piano and guitar driven cover of Larry Norman’s hard hitting, religious themed “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” featuring one of Thomas’ most tender vocals.

The James Thomas Band’s current success among European listeners is no surprise considering that Thomas - the son of a father who was a master sergeant in the Army (who earned three bronze stars) and a comptroller for NATO - was born and spent many of his formative years in Verona Italy, where he attended Italian schools. Two of the early obstacles he had to overcome were a terrible speech impediment and being trained to switch from being left to right handed. Two years ago, during an interview with the best-known radio DJ in Milan about working on The Loves of My Life, Thomas blew his host away by speaking fluent Italian. He also spent part of his childhood in Boston and Durham.

“Inspired by my late wife, who spent much of her career as a psychologist at Duke and taught me about the inner workings of the mind, I have always found it natural to write songs about the human condition,” Thomas says. “She was always my greatest fans and I know she would love the fact that I’m making music again from a perspective of having a deeper understanding now about how relationships go. Many years ago, I almost signed a deal in Nashville, but a difficult encounter with a record company executive made me change my mind.

"Making music on my own terms now, I can enjoy my success much more than I could have in those days,” he adds. “Back then, I had no objectivity and I was not as strong and refined a songwriter as I am today. I would just throw out the first thing that popped into my head and go with it. Now I carefully craft every single word and feel like I can communicate my feelings so much better. I’ve always understood the impact of music, but now I understand the power of words and always keep in mind how people will receive and relate to them.”

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