Finding Her Voice

Singer’s passion reveals secret to music’s allure

Ann James belting out a Johnny Cash song with her own interpretation.

Ann James belting out a Johnny Cash song with her own interpretation. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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For many, music has always set the rhythms of life — a touchstone of memory — the wedding, the breakup, the first rush into love. Early in my introduction to this drink of life in rhyme, I wanted to become a musician. So I found a guy who lived near us who had a homemade guitar for sale. I bought it with visions of becoming famous, writing fantastic songs and having girls fall all over me. Sure.

I was learning to play that guitar in my room when my brother Ron heard me and came in to listen.

“Let me see that,” he said.

I never saw that guitar again. My brother plays beautifully; piano, banjo, harmonica and, of course, guitar. Good for him; I’m happy to know I was the catalyst for his musical journey.

Which brings me to Anne James, a musician in Payson, on her own musical journey, still moving, still discovering new songs — from heartbreak blues to happy tunes to modern ballads.

While being interviewed, James played a song Johnny Cash made famous: “I Walk the Line.”

I was struck by how different the song sounded in her voice. It’s one of the grand schemes of music; a song can be played by many people, yet one may never hear the song the same way.

It struck a chord with me, pun intended, that she took a song I’d heard many times made memorable by hearing it sung in a new way.

James started playing guitar in 1968 in high school. Some friends showed her three chords and she was off.

Then life intervened. She quit for 10 years, except for songs played on a small guitar for her children as a way of saying good night. But like all people with that creative drive to express themselves, she returned to her passion. She said she really learned to play from 1978 to ’81. It was a period of intense study, learning from records, concerts and other musicians.

Of course, a ‘real job’ always paid the bills. James has a degree in Urban Planning and has worked from here to California and back on various projects throughout her regular career. But singing and playing always remained in the mix.

A major influence on her music was a woman named Elly Cotton. A finger picker, Cotton made such a strong impression on James and changed her life in music. Other influences included Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary; Mississippi John Hurt; and Doc Watson.

In her period of discovering and learning, she bought songbooks for the words and chording of songs, and listened to records over and over. Oddly enough, the more she learned — the more she let others influence her — the more surely she found her own unique voice.

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Ann James has spent a lifetime perfecting her art and developing her distinctive vocal style, even though paychecks, motherhood and life's demands always intruded. Even when signing others' songs her voice is her own.

Two of her favorite guitars were an old Fender and a Martin D28, which she still plays. When she met Jim Eichberger, her husband, he recognized her talent and started booking her.

She is still in a group called The Artichoke Sisters which started in 1998. It’s a three-part harmony group and they sing and play in Phoenix or wherever people are interested in hearing them.

James has recorded seven albums and credits Billy Ishido (Junction 87) and John Carpino with producing some of her albums with such great sound and production values. James and her husband have owned three music stores, the current one being Main Street Guitars and Gifts, located at 410 W. Main St., Ste. D. (Todd’s Books moved to the two-story building just east of them.)

Listening to James sing, I’ve attempted to put her voice into a category — nothing doing.

James’ voice is soft, mellow, but sharp, clear and strong.

And that brings one back to the influence of music and what it has meant to and done for me.

When my brother stole that guitar, it set him on his path — and set me on a different one, which satisfies my soul in its own way.

Maybe it can be called the joy of appreciation. Whatever it’s called, whenever I write, I put ear buds into my ears, select a favorite musician and turn up the volume. My fingers punch out a tune of their own across the keyboard. Stories and articles take their cue from the music and manage to sing their own special message.

It doesn’t always go where I think it will, but like music, that’s the joy, it turns out different every time.

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