Sam Amidon – an old folk head on young shoulders
Vermont native Sam Amidon explains how he went from office typist to folk revivalist - and how he loves to jam with Martin Hayes on the Lower East Side
Sam Amidon is trying his hardest to rein in his inner fanboy, but it’s impossible. He just can’t help it. “I mean, Martin Hayes, ” he says with the glee of a giddy schoolgirl. “I got to play Irish tunes with Martin Hayes on the Lower East Side on Sunday night at one in the morning. It doesn’t get better than that.”
While there is no questioning the Irish fiddler’s eminent status and legendary talent, he doesn’t immediately strike you as the standard idol for a young lad growing up in Brattleboro, Vermont (population: 12,049) in the 1980s. Then again, while he could technically be described as a singer-songwriter, Sam Amidon isn’t exactly the type that lugs a guitar case full of soppy lovelorn paeans from city to city.
As the son of folk musicians Peter and Mary-Alice, the tradition is in his blood. A multi-instrumentalist who plays fiddle, guitar and banjo, his childhood in New England – where there is a custom of fiddle-playing based on the Irish style – was instrumental in shaping both the sort of music that he listened to and that he played. Over the course of six albums – including this year’s excellent Bright Sunny South – he has proven himself a superb interpreter of traditional folk songs, reworked and rearranged to put a distinct Amidon- esque slant on them. Yet forging his own sound from other peoples’ material has never proved problematic for the 32-year-old.
“When I was growing up, my favourite artists – who I thought of in the same way as Miles Davis and John Coltrane – were Martin Hayes, Tommy Peoples, Frankie Gavin; all great fiddle players,” he explains. “When you listen to their records, especially the ones from the 1970s, by and large, none of them is playing tunes that they wrote. It’s almost entirely traditional tunes. But I never really noticed that, because to me, I was so focused on their interpretation.
“To me, those albums are massive personal statements, and the deep, intense, tortured but also subtle expression of Tommy Peoples is so radically different to Martin’s, even if they’re playing the same tune. The fact that they didn’t happen to put those notes together for the first time is irrelevant to me. So growing up in the folk music world, I was just never that bothered by the question of what’s yours and what’s not yours, in terms of content.”
Bright Sunny South’s combination of Amidon’s plaintive vocal and a fusion of the music that he loves – from traditional folk, to free jazz and improvisational rock – means that songs like The Streets of Derry sit alongside his take on Mariah Carey’s Shake It Off with no jarring aural discrepancies. He is not precious about what songs he takes on, he says, as long as they hold some personal connection.