Mike Hyland – Sun Music Writer
A fixture on the Sonoma music scene for many years, James Marshall Berry is perhaps the most recognized musician in town. Not only does he play music, but he writes about it for the I.T. as well as for his own blog (http://sonomamusic.com). Presently a member of BackTrax, JMB’s musical background was formed listening to Johnny Cash albums and quickly morphed into a heavy metal scene, admiring bands like Judas Priest, UFO, AC/DC and others. And oddly enough, he has never owned a Beatles album… but that’s another story.
He got his first guitar from a neighbor at age 15, and he and a buddy, Nazar Eljumaily, took guitar lessons together. JMB soon discovered that the bass guitar was more of what he was into, so he began taking lessons from Steve Evans who toured with the likes of Etta James, Elvin Bishop and others. Before long, he was in a cover band “with a chick singer doing songs by Pat Benetar, Blondie and others,” but his heart was in hard rock.
Like most musicians, many of the stories to be told of his evolving years are not suitable for a family newspaper, but the bands and the music continued on toward the hard rock sound that he continued to seek out. There was Marshall Law, “we owned the party circuit in Novato,” JMB explains, “but we quickly discovered that there were numerous bands with the same name out there.”
Another problem his bands faced was being able to hold on to a singer. “For some reason, singers were always a problem to keep in the band, kind of like Spinal Tap and drummers,” he says. So the band focused on the music and if a singer came along and could handle it, they were in, but they tended to move along all too quickly. Playing in a variety of bands over the years, they had an opportunity or two to be looked at by record labels, but JMB recalls, “whenever a record deal came around, the band would always fall apart.”
By then, Nirvana and similar bands began to happen and JMB knew it was time for a change. A succession of bands came and went with names like the Strato Cats, Vine Country Rockers, the Berry Brothers Band, and Southbound. Something of a Southern Rock tribute band, Southbound was playing a gig at the Viking Lounge in Novato one night when Gregg Allman sauntered in and sat in with the band, doing about an hour’s worth of Allman Brothers tunes, with JMB on bass.
As the years moved along, so did life. While he continued to play music, he also married and started having kids. He and his family moved to Sonoma in 1990 and while he continued to play on the side, he also got serious about supporting his family with something other than music. He took computer classes at SRJC and found out he was pretty good at it.
He immersed himself in technology; even cut his hair, looked presentable, but couldn’t get hired. He applied at Portal Publishing in Marin County and was given 90 days to prove his worth. He remained with the company for eight years as their Director of Internet Services. Wanting to get into the wine industry, he soon became the Network Administrator at Winery Exchange in Novato, and then later served as Director of Technology for Three House Multimedia where he provided the guidance for all of the organizations technological functions for the Sonoma Sun, KSVY Radio, SVTV and all related websites.
Leaving the corporate world in 2008, JMB founded his own tech company, JMB Web Consulting, with an office on Broadway in Sonoma. He consults with many small businesses and numerous wineries on how to best leverage social media and the web world for their brands.
But by no means has he abandoned music. After several years of playing acoustically around town and the surrounding areas with a variety of artists and singers, he hooked up with Oscar Mooneyhan who was putting BackTrax together. “This gig worked out great for me,” says JMB, “because I don’t have to be in charge. Oscar books the shows, takes care of all the details, hell, we even practice in his garage. And the best part is that there is not a lot of drama in the band. Our goal is to have people enjoy the music, dance and have a good time.”
While BackTrax is predominantly a cover band, they will slip in some originals from time to time. The band has amassed a pretty hefty following in Sonoma and the music transcends the generations. In addition to their regular gigs, they do tribute shows from time to time. They’ve done the Beatles, Creedence, Tom Petty and others. Next up is a Rolling Stones tribute show, “Stones @ Steiner’s” on October 7 from 9 p.m. until midnight. The show will feature Stones hits from the early ‘60s through the early ‘80s.
A different type of performance takes place this Friday, September 16, when JMB and Oscar join forces for an acoustic duo show at the Taste of the Himalayas (across from Murphy’s Pub) from 7:30 to 9:30. No cover charge, just some cool songs and a good time.
James Marshall Berry is Sonoma’s rock star when it comes to music as well as technology, a unique fixture within the culture of our town. While others in the entertainment world have one word names like Cher or Oprah, this guy is well known simply as JMB, and that’s even cooler than a one name star.