Sam Amidon Is A New Purveyor of Age-old Traditions

Vermont-raised, London-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sam Amidon enlivens his roots with his self-titled album on October 23 via Nonesuch Records.

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The aptly titled collection is Amidon’s fullest realization of his artistic vision yet. His selection of nine tracks came together very organically, as many were songs he’s sung the longest that have brought him comfort over the years, thinking of home and family. Amidon was raised in Southeastern Vermont, where his parents were noted folk singers in the shape-note tradition.

“They had discovered it mostly in their twenties, and they loved it—different kinds of folk songs and ballads and fiddle tunes, folk dancing,” Amidon recalls. “They didn’t see it as something that needed to be preserved or a responsibility. My parents didn’t have that sort of fetishism around it being vintage. It’s just it was all alive to them, and they just wanted their lives to be full of this stuff.”

Though he was raised in the thick of New England’s rich cultural heritage, the artist did not actually hear any of the infamous field recordings from the 1950s and 60s that set the ensuing folk revival into motion. He was finally introduced to the voices of Almeda Riddle or Bessie Jones or Doc Boggs, which have become a profound inspiration to him, when they reappeared in the record store when Amidon was a teenager. Shelved next to Nirvana CDs, Amidon took the recordings home and listened gleefully to songs he already knew well, mind blown by the original tracking.

On the flip side of family tradition, this self-produced album is his most radical envisioning to date. Steeped in multi-genre form, the record invites varying collaborators into the reimagined soundscape to elevate these familiar tunes.

With the help of his frequent backing band, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro, Amidon recorded mostly live in the studio with Belgian guitarist Bert Cools who played on his last EP, as well as Amidon’s wife, Beth Orton, who adds vocals on three songs. Acoustic bassist Ruth Goller and saxophonist and labelmate Sam Gendel also play on the album, mixed by Leo Abrahams.

“You can do it once,” Amidon explains about his bold eponymous arrival. “And it only makes sense that I’ve cashed in those chips for this moment. I just had a gentle feeling that this was it, a balance of folk songs that have personal meaning to me, and evolving them with this group of talented people—something I couldn’t have done ten years ago.”

Each album, dating back to his 2007 introduction, But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, has been a journey of its own. Excluding 2017’s, The Following Mountain, his first original tracklist, Amidon’s artistry involves revisiting existing tracks to keep a story alive.

Building off the music he came up through, each collection is a development into a dynamic new sonic sphere. Sam Amidon follows the 2019 EP Fatal Flower Garden (A Tribute to Harry Smith). In 2017, he also shared Kronos Quartet’s Folk Songs, on which he was a featured singer along with Rhiannon Giddens, Natalie Merchant, and Olivia Chaney. Lily-O was in 2014, and in 2013, he made his label debut, Bright Sunny South.

Taj Mahal’s “Light Rain Blues,” Harkins Frye’s “Time Has Made a Change,” and “Hallelujah,” which is an 1835 William Walker shape-note tune using earlier words by Charles Wesley, found in the Sacred Harp collection, are the exceptions to his traditional theme.

Incidentally, his favorite track is “Light Rain Blues.” The song comes from an early solo folk album by Taj Mahal, who is also a collector of early field recordings.

“I love how pared down that record is,” says Amidon. “It exhibits his incredible musicianship. I’m not sure I would have covered one of these in the past because the album is such a perfect record as it stands. But, I particularly love this song because it creates such an atmosphere.”

“Light Rain Blues” exemplifies the departure the artist takes with studio experimentation. It’s built around a steady banjo figure but quickly incorporates elements of spacious, ethereal electronic music to complement Amidon’s intimate vocal. Amidon explains that his singing on the track is a tribute to Taj Mahal, leaning more into a cover. He credits his creative cohorts for bringing the difference, and allowing this song to exist as a separate track, still a nod but able to do its own thing.

His team’s fluency with modern equipment keeps the same energy flow found while creating old-time acoustic tunes, one take, and no editing.

Another highlight of his from the record is “Time Has Made A Change.” It’s a classic gospel song that his parents, who were featured on the 1977 Nonesuch recording Rivers of Delight with the Word of Mouth Chorus, recorded with their dear friend Lucy Simpson on 1982’s Sharon Mountain Harmony.

“One thing that I love about singing these old traditional songs is connecting with the unconscious of these worlds,” says the artist. “When singing a mournful ballad from the 19th century, you’re speaking about the sadness of death in such a deep and emotional way that you wouldn’t get from just reading history books. You’re given access to the consciousness of these people, which I often find moving. But it’s also the unconscious of the country in terms of what turns up in the narratives of murder ballads or religious hymns and sometimes very mundane songs about hunting or cooking—all the different corners of lives.”

At the very core of humanity is folk music. The tradition of regional music, passed from one generation to the next, continent-to-continent, chronicles the human experience, pointing to a place in time, yet leaving space for further interpretation down the road.

Often, folk tunes become vignettes of a bygone era, an artifact of an old way of life. As a purveyor of these age-old traditions, Amidon has dedicated his entire craft to perpetuating this music with a dynamic approach that resonates with future generations, ensuring folklore lives on.

Listen to Sam Amidon here.

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