Bios -- Choice Quotes
Joel Mabus was born in 1953 to a
family of old-time country music performers, who had worked in the 1930's in a
traveling "Hillbilly" troupe for Chicago's WLS, home of the famed
"National Barn Dance" radio show. His father Gerald was a champion
fiddler, his mom a singer and banjo & accordion player. Widowed when Joel
was 2 years old, Ruby Lee Mabus raised her three kids in a small Southern
Illinois town on meagre survivor benefit checks from her husband's social
security, plus income from piano & accordion lessons and other odd jobs. It
was the era before food stamps & WIC; the family got by with
"government cheese" and the occasional can of government
Joel started on the family mandolin at age 9 and played bluegrass with his older
brother at home; he learned his gospel by singing in a store-front Pentecostal
church. Guitar, banjo & fiddle were soon in Joel's mix. Despite the poverty,
he did well in public school and earned a full National Merit Scholarship.
Attending Michigan State University, Mabus studied cultural anthropology and
English literature, while earning his spending money as a folk & blues
performer in local bars and coffeehouses.
Making Michigan his home after college, Mabus traveled the folk & bluegrass
circuit, playing festivals and small concert venues, occasionally winning some
fiddle & banjo contests to cover expenses on the road.
With a recording career begun in 1978, Joel has traveled all over the United
States (and parts of Texas, he adds) performing for folk societies, festivals,
art houses, music camps, square dances, contradances and churches. Teaching
instrument & songwriting workshops is part of the mix, too.
Joel has done sideman duties for several tours with folk icon, Tom Paxton. He
has played on stage with many of his heroes: Doc Watson, Dave Van Ronk, Norman
Blake, Peggy Seeger, Jethro Burns, Sonny Terry, Buffy Saint Marie, Johnny Gimble,
Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels and many more. He has worked alongside many of
his friends & songwriting fellows: Greg Brown, John Gorka, Claudia Schmidt,
Si Kahn, Christine Lavin, Jack Hardy, Sloan Wainwright, Peter Ostroushko, Bob
Franke, Steve Gillette, Susan Werner…and the list goes on.
He has 27 solo albums to his credit (some featuring songwriting, others focusing
on traditional guitar or banjo, and some very eclectic), along with studio work
as side musician. His latest album is a songwriter's collection, Time &
Truth in 2019. He is the author of a book on fingerstyle guitar (Parlor
Guitar, Hal Leonard Publishing) and has written many columns about the business
of folk music for the Folk Alliance International, of which he is an
award-winning life member.
Mabus may be called a
singer-songwriter, but he doesn't sound like one.
He's the son of a 1930's old time fiddle champ and a banjo-pickin' farm
girl. His performing career began
in college during the Vietnam era, where he studied anthropology and literature
by day and played coffeehouses by night. One critic writes, "Joel Mabus
knows his way around the English language and American culture just as well as
he knows his way around a fretboard.”
in 1953 in the southern Illinois town of Belleville, Joel has recorded 27 solo
albums of original and traditional music since his recording career started in
1978. Joel's latest CD is 2019's Time & Truth a
return to songwriting both topical & timeless. Among his awards: inducted into the Detroit Music Awards Hall of
Fame in 2000, the inaugural Lantern Bearer Award presented by Folk Alliance
Region Midwest (FAI) in 2006. A one-off in the
folk world, Mabus defies any easy pigeon-hole.
His palette ranges from mountain banjo to jazz guitar -- from sensitive
introspection to wicked satire. He's
both picker & poet, and from coast to coast over the past 40 years this
Midwesterner has brought audiences to their feet, wanting more.
Mabus is a maverick in the folk music world.
An award-winning folksinger, he defies any easy pigeonhole.
By turns, he picks a mountain banjo to accompany an ancient ballad, sings
a witty song about modern life, plays a sweet Irish melody on guitar, swings a
hot jazz number, and then reaches deep for a soulful expression of values in a
troubled world. He tops it all with a flatpicked fiddle tune or old
ukulele song --
all skillfully blended into a seamless flow. One fan said, “Its music
from the heart that hits you right between the eyes.”
A mainstay on the folk circuit these past 40 years, Joel has 27 albums to
his credit; the latest is Time
Mabus -- songwriter,
serious picker, old-time fiddler, humorist.
A maverick in the folk world, Mabus defies any easy pigeon-hole.
Born 1953 in Belleville, IL, to traditional musicians, Joel’s own
performing career began in 1971. 27 albums.
CORNELL FOLK SONG SOCIETY 2014:
Joel Mabus is a free-ranging fretboard genius and funny, deep songwriter whose
warm voice, sly humor, and musicianship sweep audiences along for the ride.
Throughout his career, Joel Mabus has interwoven creativity and traditional
music in satisfying balance. In concert, Joel Mabus connects. Performing in a
gentle, easy manner, he may lull his audience into a relaxed state, then roll
them on the floor with laughter or make them sit up and think, or stun them with
his instrumental pyrotechnics.
Joel Mabus can be summed up in one word: Style. He oozes with style: homespun
sophistication, mellow innovation, low-key wizardry, and uncynical minstrelsy.
ACTOR/SINGER JEFF DANIELS IN 2014 RADIO INTERVIEW:
"Guys like Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Goodman, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, John
Hyatt, Christine Lavin, Cheryl Wheeler and on and on and on. These people -- Guy
Clark and Utah Phillips -- these guys have been doing it for decades and there
is an art to that, it's not just going out there and winging it…. Another
great guy who does this is Joel Mabus. What a player! And a great songwriter,
and another guy that can walk out there with just a guitar and hold an audience.
And I love that about him."
MUSICHOUND FOLK (Chris Rietz):
It's hard to imagine another artist on the folk scene who combines the same
concise, deceptively understated, lyrical insight and sometimes devastating wit
with such world-class instrumental prowess.
blues and ragtime playing is imaginative, spontaneous, and informed without
being scholarly…. And Mabus’ weathered voice is a great folk-blues
THE TWIN CITIES READER:
Mabus is everything a modern string player ought to be: versatile, innovative,
tasty, and funny. He has the good taste of a four-star sauce maker, and a
superior musical strength on fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin to match his
clever sensibility and often subtle sense of humor.
THE VICTORY MUSIC REVIEW:
[Mabus] is a sparkling multi-instrumentalist, a versatile singer, at home with
introspective lyrics as well as novelty numbers, and a superb songwriter.
THE KENT STATE FOLK
His songs are tastefully made and witty; timely and memorable. Joel's
innovative songs speak of those small moments in life that lodge in our
memories: experiences like viewing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, or
using duct tape. He treats his subject gently, with empathy and grace, allowing
his mellow voice to color the lyrics just enough to make you feel privileged to
have heard his viewpoint. That's a rare talent for ANY performer. Joel Mabus is
the type of folk artist who will be around for a long time to come, and we will
all be much richer for the experience
Mabus is an iconoclast; he constantly stretches musical genres, overlaps them,
and molds them into what can only be described as an all-encompassing style...
the consummate musician.
[His playing] boasts a relaxed yet propulsive feel, unfailingly beautiful tone,
and fine, ever-graceful ornamentation.
BOB McWILLIAMS -
"Joel Mabus is a folk treasure. Mabus' songwriting is as wide-ranging as
his instrumental skills. He can create a whole life story in a few well-turned
phrases... marvelous original songs... dandy new release."
Mabus is a fine songwriter, with a sense of humor that enables him to write
funny songs that aren't merely one-liners set to music, and that don't wear thin
after a few listenings. "Duct Tape Blues" is a hilarious blues parody,
while "The Naked Truth" is a drolly witty parable.
Mabus also has a knack for writing topical songs that aren't preachy.
"Touch A Name On The Wall" is more successful at telling the story of
a Vietnam veteran than the recent surge of TV dramas because he, like Woody
Guthrie, recognizes the importance of focusing on a single character.
"Business With The Devil" is a nigh unto brilliant song, which in it's
lyric construction could stand alongside the masterworks of a balladeer genius
like John Prine.
Mabus plays outstanding banjo and flat & finger-picked guitar. He sings too.
He punches up the songs and brings to them what they need. And pick? With the
fingers of a genius and the taste of an angel.
VANCOUVER FOLK FESTIVAL:
Joel is one of those quintessentially Midwestern American artists. He lives in
Lansing, Michigan, but he has a style we will always associate with Will Rogers
or Mark Twain, and a great sense of humour which compliments, rather than
contradicts, some very serious material. Joel can reduce us to tears with a song
about the Vietnam War Memorial, Touch A Name On The Wall, and then make us laugh
hard with a song like Hitler Was A Vegetarian. He has perfected the art of being
entertaining without pandering, he teaches without lecturing, and does it all
with great style.
JEFF GARRITY -
It's not just a wealth of musical styles or his smooth and expressive voice that
have made Mabus such a fine artist. His songs, which range from thoughtful to
silly to poetic, show that he knows his way around the English language and
American culture just as well as he knows his way around a fretboard.
RICH WARREN - SINGOUT!:
Joel Mabus sings with sincerity and character, he writes with veracity and
vision. ...this is a refreshing return to the folk side of singer-songwriters,
full of heart-felt music honestly performed.
Joel Mabus strolled onstage at Kalamazoo's
Celery City Music Hall and quietly took control of his audience...
[Mabus] has an uncanny way of making you feel as though you're listening to a
favorite uncle spin yarns at a family picnic. His songs are often humorous,
sometimes sad, and always thought - provoking. They've earned him the reputation
of being one of today's best singer -songwriters.
For nearly two -and -a -half hours the audience
laughed, cried, and sang along with the minstrel's image-laced songs. This is
the way acoustic music was meant to be played - up close and personal. And few
do it better than Joel Mabus.
JON SIRKIS – ACOUSTIC MUSICIAN:
Joel Mabus' new disc, Promised Land, is an example of progressive populist
songwriting that would do Woody Guthrie proud.
His sharp writing and soft singing have an amused and gently knowing quality
that suggest Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepherd. In fact, Mabus might've simply
become a storyteller, had he not wielded such a rock-solid guitar pick,
versatile among several traditional genres.
© 2001 - 2019 Joel Mabus
Last revised: February 21, 2019