I reviewed a live performance by Sam for this site a couple of months ago, and his debut album was only just then starting to percolate into the UK although it came out in the States earlier in the year. I said at the time that even if you’re a hard-core Americana enthusiast, you could be forgiven for not having hitherto experienced Sam’s music, as for some strange reason his name hadn’t at that point gotten around much. But his tour with Peggy Seeger last autumn brought him some neat accolades. I remarked at the time that he’s truly a long tall talent (he must be nearly 6’ 9”!), a genuine, gentle fellow with the gift of an immediate and ready rapport with his audience (as anyone who saw him touring with Peggy will testify). But much more too…
Sam performs “innovative mountain music with a sense of history”, and his natural milieu is latter-day Appalachian/old-time/original country. He’s nothing less than the real deal – a very competent, nay outstanding instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, fiddle) with a pleasing vocal delivery and entirely authentic singing manner and a true-hearted feel for original songwriting in cognisance of the tradition. Much in the Tim O’Brien school, I’d say – and it’s no coincidence that Tim is just one of the honoured guests on this album, along with Laurie Lewis, Cathy Fink, Janis Ian and Donavan Cain (who all make cameo harmony vocal appearances on isolated tracks). Sam also draws on the instrumental skills of Tim Crouch, Marcy Marxer, Tyler Hughes, Russ Pahl, Pat McInerney, Missy Raines, Jeff Taylor to create an accomplished and tasty backdrop for his own skills. He must be doing something right to be able to get all those folks on side to play and sing for him!
So first, then, a touch of biog: Sam was born and raised in Wythe County in south-west Virginia, and took up half-a-dozen stringband instruments as a teenager under the direction of local teacher Jim Lloyd, while at the same time his singing mentor was balladeer Sheila Kay Adams, no less. Sam’s current repertoire’s a compelling and varied mix of traditional and old-time songs and ballads, dance tunes and his own original songs, but it’s on the latter strand that Ain’t We Brothers concentrates almost exclusively. And these compositions are really special; here, Sam tells moving stories about love, the home-place, working people and current social issues in the mountain region, and he does so with a real in-deep sense of personal empathy and conscience that surely emanates from his unswerving personal convictions and life-persuasion. This just happens to be LGBTQ (for want of a better term); Sam’s openly gay, but his songs are no crusade, nor apologist stance, and he doesn’t preach (not even on a song called The Golden Rule). Instead what comes across is how natural the livin’-life experience is, and the songs are shot through with Sam’s truthfulness, his intense humanity, his love for fellow human-beings (Ain’t We Brothers after all, indeed?).
Of course, country music stereotypes (even the less redneck, misogynist ones) don’t normally hold much truck with open-mindedness in livin’ and lovin’, but you can really feel the sensitivity with which Sam treats such scenarios in carefully, sympathetically crafted songs like the barroom waltzer Just Like Jordan and the narrative Two Virginia Boys, and of course the CD’s title song, which turns country-music convention on its head by focusing the spotlight on the prejudice and persecution endured by two fellow mineworkers just because they openly lived together. The often bittersweet, conflicting feelings also spill over into, and colour (tho’ in a positive way) Sam’s outlook on other areas of life such as the experience and writing of music (Angel In The Ashes was written for Joan Baez), while Working Shoes, his portrayal of his great-grandmother’s life and views (she lived in coal mining camps) is a further disc highlight.
The non-original quotient of the disc comprises superbly-turned accounts of the Carter Family classic My Dixie Darling and the traditional song My Singing Bird (for both of which Sam wrote some extra verses!), a touching cappella rendition of Johnny (another version of which can be heard on a 1951 Frank Warner source recording) and a lustily-driven set of fiddle tunes (hey, only one? I sure feel shortchanged!). Sam both understands and honours the tradition, while carrying it forward intelligently in his own writing. For, with the emphasis on that aspect of his personal creativity, that’s evidently how he wishes to be presented and judged right now, and good for him – having the courage of his convictions and unashamedly wearing them on his sleeve, as naturally as breathing. You can see why he’s gotten on so well with Peggy! How refreshing to encounter Sam, an overwhelmingly honest artist who can place such consummate talent at the service of his art.
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