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Joel Mabus is one of contemporary folk music's most eclectic performers. A skilled guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin player and melodic songwriter, Mabus has played everything from traditional folk tunes to bluegrass, blues, and original songs. Mabus inherited his love of music from his parents, who performed on WLS Prairie Farmer Barn Dance road tours in the 1930s. His father and his uncle, who were identical twins, played old-timey songs throughout the Midwest prior to World War II.
Mabus' musical skills were evident from an early age. By the age of nine, he was singing gospel music at the local Pentecostal church and old-timey tunes at home. Although a fourth-grade teacher suggested that Mabus learn to play the trombone, his parents were financially unable to rent an instrument. Instead, Mabus was gifted with his older brother's mandolin, which he quickly taught himself to play. As a teenager, Mabus wrote poetry and his first songs. Although he attended Michigan State University for four years, studying anthropology under a National Merit Scholarship, he left the school before graduating to play music full-time in 1975.
Mabus' debut album, Grassroots, was released in 1978 and featured guest musicians including Frank Wakefield, Brian Bishop, Joe Fitzpatrick, and Frank Youngman. His second album, Settin' the Woods on Fire, released in 1980, was recorded during a performance at the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse. While most of Mabus' subsequent albums have spotlighted his original tunes, he also concentrates on special projects. Flatpick & Clawhammer, released in 1993, featured all traditional tunes, mostly played instrumentally on banjo and guitar. Western Passage: Suite for Solo Guitar, released in 1996, focused on finger-style melodies based on 19th century Americana, which Mabus played on a classical guitar. Rhyme Schemes, released in 1997, emphasized the humorous side of Mabus' poetry and songwriting.
Mabus has continued this eclectic approach into the new millennium, issuing such albums as 2002's blues and ragtime Thumb Thump, 2005's Tin Pan Alley guitar instrumental outing Parlor Guitar, and 2007's self-explanatory The Banjo Monologues. Mabus also issued a collection of re-recorded versions of his older material, Retold, in 2008, and an album of new songs (in old styles) reflecting the challenges of the contemporary era, No Worries Now..., in 2009. American Anonymous, consisting of Mabus versions of traditional American folk songs whose authors remain (as the title suggests) unknown, was issued in 2011. Over the years, Joel Mabus' songs have been covered by such artists as Claudia Schmidt, Bryan Bowers, Sally Rogers, and Magpie.