A new, self-titled record from Sam Amidon came out on Nonesuch last week. Despite his credentials, this is a decidedly untraditional folk album, writes Andy Childs.
I’m sure it won’t surprise long-time followers of his music, but perhaps the first thing that should be said about this new self-titled album from Sam Amidon is that it is decidedly not a ‘traditional’ folk record. On his impressive half-dozen or so albums to date, Amidon, an artist with impeccable folk credentials and obvious respect for the folk tradition — his parents are Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, both renowned American folk musicians — has often taken the essence and form that makes up the kind of ‘Old Weird America’ material to be found on Folkways recordings and on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music for instance, and, with a remarkably diverse and adventurous array of musical collaborators, expanded and transformed the genre into a contemporary, emotionally-charged, thrilling, always fascinating, occasionally startling style all his own. This new album is, he himself considers, the fullest realization to date of this artistic vision. I couldn’t possibly disagree.
There are nine tracks here and all but three are traditional folk songs, some of which have already undergone a degree of re-interpretation by various artists over the years. None I would guess as radical and fearless as Amidon’s. The opening track, ‘Maggie’, recorded in the past by the likes of Roscoe Holcomb and Barbara Dane, here sounds like it could have been arranged and produced by a blissed-out Nile Rodgers. With Amidon’s plaintive vocals and the forlorn lyrics, it shouldn’t really work — but it does. Brilliantly. There are other boundary-pushing arrangements on ‘Pretty Polly’ — apparently one of the first traditional tunes he learned to play — ‘Reuben’, ‘Sundown’ and ‘Cuckoo’, the latter a much-amended song that has often contained ‘floating verses’, as it does here when it briefly morphs into ‘Jack O’Diamonds’. On an album of such impressive ambition, I think ‘Spanish Merchant’s Daughter’ is perhaps the most satisfying and memorable track. The song itself, an old English courtship tune, has had many different titles in its various incarnations and been ‘collected’ from singers in the U.S. and England. Up until now it most prominantly appeared as a recording by The Stoneman Family on the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. It’s a beautiful song with an ear-worm refrain and suits Amidon’s voice and the light, airy arrangement perfectly.
The three ‘non-traditional’ tracks (i.e where the original composer can be verified, I guess?) all sit very comfortably amidst the remodelled folklore. Taj Mahal’s ‘Light Rain Blues’ has an array of atmospheric effects and arguably Amidon’s best vocal; ‘Hallelujah’, you may be relieved to know, is not the Leonard Cohen song but, according to the press release, an 1835 William Walker shape-note tune using earlier words by Charles Wesley, found in the Sacred Harp collection of early American folk-hymns. And then there’s the gospelly ‘Time Has Made A Change’ by Harkins Frye from 1948; covered by Elvis Presley no less. It has the simplest arrangement — just guitar & vocals — and was learned from his parents who apparently sang it around the house when Sam was a youngster.
The album was ‘mostly recorded live in the studio’ and also features Belgian guitarist Bert Cools, acoustic bassist Ruth Goller, and saxophonist Sam Gendel. Amidon’s wife, the fabulous Beth Orton, also adds vocals on three tracks, and the whole thing was produced by Leo Abrahams whose own musical soundscapes could be a good indication of what he brings to this album.
As genre-warping as some of the arrangements are, a lot of the music is solidly underpinned by Amidon’s banjo and guitar playing, so it never veers off course into indulgence and irrelevance. It all feels considered and deliberate in the best possible sense; the work of a man fully in control of his material and his vision for its potential.
If there is such a genre as ‘New Weird America’ then Sam Amidon could well be its finest exponent.
‘Sam Amidon’ is out now and available here to stream or buy. Alternatively, order a copy from your local independent record shop.