Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon’s Nonesuch debut is, he admits, “a lonesome record.” Despite its often elegiac, solitary feel, this is a work borne out of friendship and intensive collaboration, recorded in London with a small coterie of virtuosic multi-instrumental players: Thomas Bartlett, Shahzad Ismaily, and Chris Vatalaro. The folk songs, shape-note hymns, and country ballads that Amidon performs deal on the surface with the darkest, most fundamental of issues—the specter of death, the looming clouds of war, unquenchable longing, unrequited love. Yet there is beauty and comfort in these time-tested words and well-worn melodies and in Amidon’s simple, emotionally direct delivery of these songs, as captured here on tape by the legendary English recording engineer Jerry Boys. Like a glimpse of early sunlight peeking over a darkened mountain, they offer a kind of respite, a sense of life’s troubles shared. They also provide a patchwork portrait of Amidon himself, with each of these tunes representing a facet of the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s own history, his memories, his travels, and his discoveries.
The Vermont-born and raised, London-based Amidon’s particular gift is not to compose new songs, but to rework and repurpose traditional melodies into a striking new form that makes them feel very much his own. He delivers these songs in a hauntingly plainspoken voice, one that encompasses sadness and stoicism, vulnerability and wisdom. As Pitchfork has said, “his interpretations are so singular that it stops mattering how (or if) they existed before.” His approach to developing his repertoire has a lot in common with the appropriation techniques of visual artists who re-contextualize a familiar image, especially in the way he is able to introduce jazz-oriented and avant-garde elements into his arrangements or disrupt them with a startling burst of noise or dissonance. But it’s equally akin to quilt-making, taking swatches of someone else’s melodies and words and stitching them together with his own guitar or banjo riffs and embroidering them with fiddle, piano, trumpet, or clarinet.
Amidon expresses a broad view of what constitutes a folk tradition: Bright Sunny South features a re-arrangement of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” (from The Emancipation of Mimi) and a surprisingly poignant take on Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” (from Live Like You Were Dying, an album, Amidon notes, that ponders in a surprisingly frank manner the same life-and-death concerns as some of these century-old numbers he has revived). Those were songs that Amidon and his boyhood chum and longtime musical foil Thomas Bartlett listened to obsessively when they were on tour together, so they’re firmly stuck in his head, inextricably mixed in with the personal catalog of old-time tunes he carries inside him. And speaking of songs with a deep personal resonance, Amidon also includes a version of “Weeping Mary,” a shape-note hymn his parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, had recorded with the Vermont-based Word of Mouth Chorus for Nonesuch Records on the pioneering 1977 disc Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns From the Sacred Harp Tradition.
Bright Sunny South is Amidon’s fourth disc in six years and is close in spirit, he feels, to his spare 2007 debut effort, the homemade But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, in which he and fledgling producer Bartlett, recording under the group name samamidon, learned as they rolled tape: “It was very much a process of discovery for the both of us. At that point, the final take was the one where I was able to get all the way through without messing the guitar part up.” He recorded two subsequent albums with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson for the Iceland-based Bedroom Community label, All Is Well and I See the Sign, in which fellow New England native and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly contributed adventurous orchestral arrangements that artfully counterbalanced Amidon’s stark delivery. (On 2010’s I See the Sign, Amidon’s spouse Beth Orton sang with him on several tracks.)
As Amidon reflects, Bright Sunny South “went a little bit back to that interior space, the solitude of the songs of Falsehearted. There was an atmospheric quality to the last two records on Bedroom Community; the albums are like this garden of sounds. But this one is more of a journey, a winding path. The band comes rushing in and then they disappear. It comes from more of a darker, internal space.”
He sought out Jerry Boys, whose lengthy resume includes classic work in the 1970s recording English folk legends Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny, and Steeleye Span. Explains Amidon, “I love especially those albums with Martin Carthy. And then in the ’90s, Jerry started doing world music stuff, like Buena Vista Social Club. More importantly for me, he did the Ali Farka Touré/Toumani Diabaté duet records. Those are so beautiful. I listened to all of that. I loved that sense of documentation, the unadorned quality. Everything sounded so clear.” He joined Boys at London’s Livingston and then SNAP studios: “I went in for a couple days and put down versions of songs totally solo because I wanted that to be a starting place. Then Thomas and Shahzad and Chris came and we had four days together, mostly playing live, no click tracks. Sometimes we would all play live, sometimes we would overdub over the solo versions I had recorded. It was an intense time, definitely not relaxed—but in a good way, I feel, because the intensity is part of the music.”
The sessions, though brief, were exploratory and adventurous, with no set role for any of these players: “It was a kind of charged atmosphere because we hadn’t done something in a room all together before, and each of them had specific ideas of how to play in a duo setting with me. They all play everything; all three are multi-instrumentalists. We had to decide who was going to jump on what instrument at any given moment.”
What emerged was the winding path that is Bright Sunny South, including moments where each player, including Amidon on fiddle, offers a counterpoint to the vocal melody. The title song has a hint of melancholic Hammond organ underscoring the chiming guitar and the Civil War–era tale of a young man heading off to battle. “He’s Taken My Feet” veers from naked prayer to dissonant, drums-and-electric guitar-driven rock. Elderly jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who made a brief special-guest appearance at the sessions, is part of that jam, and he also lends a gorgeous echo to Amidon’s vocal lines on “I Wish, I Wish.” Says Amidon, “That was awesome. I loved all those ECM ’70s jazz records he made.” For “I Wish, I Wish,” “I told him, it’s in this key, but play whatever you feel. He played the whole time; it was amazing. He just shredded. It was so powerful and there was such an open sense of musicianship, of melody and sound. We took a lot of what he played out, but everything you hear is what he was playing at that exact moment. I love great players and improvisers. I like a good singer, but I relate most deeply to instrumentalists, players who develop that life-long relationship to their instrument.”
As a prodigious young musician growing up in Vermont, the fiddle was Amidon’s own primary instrument. (Amidon recalls, “For me, Irish traditional tunes, that ornamented style of fiddle playing, was where it was at.”) His parents, who had toured with the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater, belonged to a loose-knit community of musicians who’d settled in the Brattleboro area, and the young Amidon was an enthusiastic part of it: “I grew up with folk music; it was everywhere. I was immersed in it, whether I wanted to be or not. The shaped-note singing happened in my house, or at someone else’s place; I went to folk dances, contra dances, all the time. We never listened to pop radio, but not because we thought it was evil or anything. It just wasn’t what we were into.” That said, the young Amidon was exposed to an even wider range of esoteric music. His father gave him Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Bartók String quartets to listen to; and it was during a performance by the avant-garde vocalist-percussionist David Moss at nearby Marlboro College that an eight-year-old Amidon, brought there by his father, first met Bartlett: “The only other people under the age of 20 were Thomas, my little brother who was 5, and me. We loved it. The two coincidental places where we met were at the David Moss concert and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie ... and that solidified our friendship.”
While in his early 20s, Amidon moved to New York City to pursue a growing passion for free jazz, which had begun to capture his imagination as a teenager. (He will expound enthusiastically, at some length, on the myriad connections between free jazz improvisation and old-time fiddle playing.) He studied with violinist Leroy Jenkins and played with various after-hours combos but earned money fiddling at Irish pub sessions. Deciding to teach himself to play guitar so he could get hired for studio session work and maybe figure out how to write his own songs, Amidon found himself drawn back to the folk music of his youth: “I wrote some guitar riffs and I started learning folk songs as a way of learning guitar, and then I started changing them around.” He smiles. “And I just got stuck at that stage.”
Amidon began to incorporate storytelling and elements of movement, particularly a kind of intense “liturgical” dancing, into his shows. He has appeared at experimental venues like Chelsea’s The Kitchen, collaborated on performances pieces with musical polymath Nico Muhly, and toured as part of Bartlett’s group Doveman. Most recently, he embarked on a series of live shows with the similar-minded guitarist Bill Frisell.
“I moved to New York to get away from folk music and to start playing the music that I was listening to. To try improvising, to play in rock bands, whatever… and now what I do largely is these folk tunes. I guess, partly, that singing these songs was just comforting. You’re new to New York, you’re singing these lonesome tunes, it feels good. But, at the same time, you have to pay attention to what people respond to. You have to find what’s meaningful to you, and you find out what that is by being with friends. I found that this is what I could bring to the table, to other musicians, to Nico, to Thomas, to Bill Frisell, all these collaborations. The element I can bring that is meaningful for a musical dialogue has been folk songs.”