Sam Amidon hails from Brattleboro, Vermont, and was home schooled most of his life in the folk tradition by a musical family. The largest town on the eastern edge of the state, Brattleboro, at twelve thousand people, serves as a perfect example of the bucolic peacefulness inherent in folk music both Appalachian and Northeastern. The surrounding hills of Vermont roll through humid, chilly air with a great history of dense deciduous forests known for their massive timber and breathtaking color changes before the inevitable shedding of the canopy to reveal the crisp, blue sky of winter. Where these forests were cleared during the Industrial Era and subsequently abandoned, wildflower fields have risen from the hillside thanks to seed distribution by migratory birds’ annual flights. Just ten miles north of Sam Amidon’s hometown lies another springboard into his unique interpretation of folk music, uniquely rich with modern indie and orchestral sensibilities. Here resides The Putney School, a small boarding school with a large heart whose entire mission for almost one hundred years has been centered on the development of polymaths with skills as diverse as the cultures into which graduates will continue onward. Students are expected to develop in a traditionally liberal arts academic environment with additional expectations of working as individuals within a contained and responsible community. No student can be above milking cows, working the land, performing for the student body, creating visual arts, or coming to understand math and dynamics whilst building the school’s next structure alongside dedicated faculty with tools in hand. In reference to the school’s self-labeled “progressive” education: ‘The realities of working the land, caring for animals and contributing to the well-being of a larger community all lead to natural self-discipline, and an ability to be constructively self-reflective.’ (Putneyschool.org)
Self-reflection is a necessity in roots music and Sam Amidon has a discography to prove his compassionate handling of folk in the modern era. “Every blade of grass is, to me, a work of art” begins the mildly tongue-in-cheek sub-header quote on Amidon’s twitter feed indicating an awareness of how art represents human’s interpretation of reality, nature in this case, and that nature itself equally reflects art. Coming from a sort of utopian school for artistic endeavors, Amidon is a living testament that music old and new, art old and new, are all valuable conduits for personal expression. With an unassuming and proficient air his music is rich, soulful, anachronistic, and plenty artful. His voice is calm, enchantingly monotone, and strains beautifully in moments of emotional ascension. He is unafraid of thin music, commonly keeping his tracks sparse. But after hearing contrasting tracks with beautifully robust instrumental arrangements, you get the sense that he is rather masterful in his taste of how best to suit a song for its intended sentiment. His previous album, I See the Sign, was a collection of folk standards brought roaring to life in the modern world with the help of Nico Muhly’s fantastically nuanced arranging skills and featured characteristically skittery, off-kilter string and wind arrangements which only someone of Amidon’s taste could so naturally incorporate with his balladry both soft and powerful. Amidon senses intuitively what a song begs him for, and with his upbringing is able to produce songs as minimal or as rich as necessary. Amazingly, his most recent release, Bright Sunny South (Nonesuch Records, 2013) plays out smoothly from beginning to end with tracks both emotive and even-keeled, easily segueing from one to the next, never jarring or forced.
An excellent guitarist, banjoist, and violinist, this album is heavily fingerpicking-focused with textural string additions consistently. Traces of Appalachian backwoods and northern indie folk meet in the middle with piano (Thomas Bartlett), violin (Amidon), trumpet (Kenny Wheeler), and electric guitar making cameos throughout. Jazz trumpeter Wheeler bring an excellent inflection to the record, while occasional noise influences such as overdriven guitar or ringing reverb laden xylophone add muscle and space. Percussion is intermittent and played so tactfully that the listener won’t immediately recognize the initiation or resolution of the percussion within each track. While flourishing instrumentation buttresses the vocals musically, Amidon is monotone, calm, and poetic in his lyrical delivery. From the minimalist folk beginnings of traditional folk track “He’s Taken My Feet” Amidon layers the song with the repetitive refrain ‘He’s taken my feet from the mire and the clay / He’s placed them on the rock of ages’ which has no context before the track evolves into electric guitar free jazz improv. Not usually perceived as cryptic, Amdion follows with the enigmatic, flute laced, “Pharaoh”: ‘Farewell children / I’m sure gonna leave you’ issuing a red flag that perhaps Amidon isn’t as good-natured as one would be led to believe by his subdued front-porch musician persona. There are moments of gripping, inevitable melancholy, most prominently on highlight track “Short Life”: ‘I see the train a’coming / Coming by the station / I’d rather be dead or in my grave / Than to see my darling go’. Over breezily picked guitar on opening title track “Bright Sunny South,” Amidon sings ‘In the bright sunny South and peace and content / These days of my boyhood I scarcely have spent / From the deep flowing spring to the raw flowing stream / Ever dear to my memory, sweeter is my dream’ capturing the essence of his characteristic songwriting: nostalgia played with a soloist’s ease, but a welcoming mat to a jam session with his friends.
With Bright Sunny South Amidon continues his strong compositional work but is decidedly more songwriting focused compared to I See The Sign and, while a bit disappointing to be lacking those robust orchestral arrangements, he pulls the best of what made quiet successes of his first two records All is Well and But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. This record succeeds with intuitive folk experimentation at the core of the songs, working multiple vocal refrains and chord changes in occasionally unexpected ways that sound at once fresh and deferential. His music is academic and heartfelt, without question owing to his upbringing amongst musical parents and artistically driven studies. Keep Amidon in mind year to year, his music has immediacy but can go undiscovered without actively keeping up with the soft-spoken singer’s next move.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Senior Writer