Samantha Fish: Belle Of The West

Samantha Fish
Belle of the West
(Ruf)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most artists would be satisfied to take a year, or more, after recording a career best album before dropping another. But Kansas City-bred singer/songwriter/guitarist Samantha Fish is clearly a restless soul. She follows March 2017’s Chills & Fever rocking soul set, arguably her finest work, with this equally notable disc, just eight months later. That makes five releases for her in just six years.

But it’s not just the quantity of music she is providing that’s impressive, it’s the quality and diversity too. After traveling to Detroit for the tough, horn-pumped R&B covers she ladled out on Chills … Fish hooks back up with North Mississippi Allstars frontman Luther Dickinson (he also produced 2015’s blues rocking Wild Heart), decamps to his Zebra Ranch studios in the North Hills of Mississippi, and cranks out a typically tough, authentic batch of backwoods blues, folk and gospel-laced tunes. Fish and Dickinson invited locals and Southern-based roots musicians such as Lillie Mae, Jimbo Mathus, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Amy LaVere to assist. The result is an authentic set of predominantly Fish composed originals that capture the spirit and spontaneity of the Mississippi sound.

Fish backs off from the sizzling electric guitar solos that pepper her previous work to concentrate on predominantly, but not entirely, acoustic settings that display the earthy musicality of the region is known for. She’s not entirely new to this style since she already covered a Junior Kimbrough tune on Wild Heart. Still, it comes as somewhat of a revelation when the opening “American Dream” kicks off with a featured fife solo courtesy of noted bluesman R.L. Burnside’s niece Sharde Thomas. To cement that connection, Fish covers Burnside’s classic “Poor Black Mattie,” sharing the main vocal with Lightnin’ Malcolm and digging into a version as genuine as if she was born and bred in the region.

It’s rare for a featured performer to hand one vocal over to someone else and more unusual for that to happen twice, which it does when Lillie Mae takes lead on her own lovely ballad “Nearing Home.” That track also features her somber violin, a key element in a handful of these selections. Fish proves she can write material that adopts to this rustic locale with blues stompers like “Gone for Good,” a kiss-off to a no-good partner she’s happy to have in her rear-view mirror and the dark swamp of “Daughters,” a melancholy lyric of a broken family.

Fish gets socio-political on “American Dream,” a sing-along with the biting lyrics “Hand on the bible, foot on your neck” but generally sticks to matters of the heart as on the ghostly, edgy ballad “Don’t Say that You Love Me,” featuring Mae’s haunting fiddle.

It’s unlikely Fish, or many other acts, will deliver two terrific, yet very different sounding albums in a single year again. But she’s on a career roll now, taking advantage of youthful energy, enthusiasm and talent to push outside the blues-rock envelope so many get confined (and defined) by, proving Fish’s musical creativity knows few boundaries.