Music Reviews
Bright Sunny South

Sam Amidon Bright Sunny South

(Nonesuch) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

For someone whose young life was built upon the values of folklore, Sam Amidon hasn’t exclusively conformed to its earthy traditions. Which doesn’t in any way relate with his compositional output – all of Amidon’s records begin with the faint, desolate strings of an acoustic guitar, and his affinity for Appalachian song forms is the thread that binds all of his full-length pursuits. But there’s always a welcoming distance that lets his songs take diverging paths, handled with a sense of openness and vulnerability. All the while exploring the levels of lunacy that arise from loneliness and love, yet never wallowing in hapless self-pity.

The Vermont-raised arranger continues his tradition of altering old folk songs and giving them new angles and directions in Bright Sunny South, playing them in different scales and slightly fiddling with the lyrics without tampering the essence of the original versions. There’s a melancholic elegance in Amidon’s pieces that express nuanced forms of sadness, and as demonstrated in songs like Short Life and Pharaoh, sublime chamber arrangements spruce up those feelings of sorrow. The former is especially heart wrenching – it details a war afflicted soldier whose days may be numbered, his raspy change of pitch uttered with raw intensity over some haunting fiddle work.

Amidon mounts his stories with an aura of suspense, a quality that comes from the swelling soundscapes that gild his yearning introspections. He’s Taken My Feet begins with a quiet succession of chords: "I will praise him while he gives me breath/all do praise him after death," he recites as a mournful trumpet carries the eulogy before the rattling of a snare drum wire presages the song’s antagonistic, but no less mighty finale. Other times, he’ll hold on to a perfect verse until the very end, like in the genteel ballad I Wish I Wish, in which he laments, "but I still hope the day will come/’Cause you and I shall meet as one," before the jazzy trumpet melody disappears into the sunset.

There are moments of jaunty release in South, which are contrasted to Amidon’s ponderings on life’s inevitable closures – in an odd reversal of roles, the vivacious stomp of My Old Friend energizes the ramblin’ Tim McGrew version tenfold; though it may seem like an unlikely choice, the track resonates deeply with Amidon, since he shares how the awareness of the passage of time represents life’s ebbing (in this case, the sacred bonds of friendship). And he shakes the barley in the exuberant bluegrass twang of As I Roved Out, belting a soulful intonation as he merrily converses with his banjo.

As if closing a new chapter in his life, Amidon ends with his spellbinding interpretation of Weeping Mary, which was originally recorded by his parents with the community choir Word of Mouth Chorus in 1977. In a moment of divine inspiration, he lulls it into somnambulant bliss, treasuring a song that was passed along to him with a genuine gesture of gratitude. There’s a spiritual undercurrent in South, one that deliberates on the stories that shaped Amidon’s past, making them his own for the sake of preserving his lineage.