Heralded as among America’s finest songwriters since his debut in 2004, Sam Baker is a stone cold original with no discernible influences other than, perhaps, the great Townes Van Zandt, whom he approaches in spirit and raw talent. Hailing from Itasca, Texas, Baker’s voice, dry as a caliche road, is the perfect instrument for these spare portraits of simple people living, loving and facing life’s storms. You won’t want anyone but Sam singing these songs.
Sometimes a songwriter finds the music and, well, sometimes the music finds the songwriter. As a young man Sam was living his dream…working some as a river guide and traveling the world the rest of the time. He had grown up watching his mother playing the organ in church and listening to his dad’s impressive record collection, mostly country and blues. He loved music, but it remained in the periphery of a well-lived life until one hard day in Peru when a single act of terror forever changed his destiny and ultimately made him into a songwriter.
Thirty-one year old Sam Baker was on a train traveling to Machu Picchu when a bomb exploded in the overhead luggage rack, placed there by members of the notorious Shining Path. A family of three, seated around him, and four others were killed. For Baker it was the beginning of a torturous series of physical and emotional challenges. Life-threatening injuries included a severed artery in his leg, traumatic brain damage, kidney failure, gangrene, severe hearing loss and a crushed hand. Peruvian medical care was hit or miss and a long and difficult recovery added drama to a journey that will forever haunt and inspire him. Seventeen reconstructive surgeries and many years later he still endures tinnitus and permanent hearing loss, memory problems and a permanently disfigured left hand.
Near death changes everyone, they say, and as Sam kept rising up to meet the challenges of his recovery, the music found him. First, the sounds, then the songs, then the words. He has described the process. “Melodies would come and they would be like a cardinal, a very bright red bird that flies against the window, saying, ‘Pay attention to me. Pay attention to the melody. Look at my red wings, listen to the melody.’ I don’t think I could ignore it.”
Sam had played a little guitar before the accident, but with a crushed left hand he had to learn it all over again, but backwards, his good right hand shaping the chords, the other left to strumming the strings.
“Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream”, he says. Listen to “Angels”, from Pretty World, or “Say Grace” from Say Grace, or “Iron” from Mercy, and understand that we all give love and life to one another, but we also take it right back.
In some way all of Sam Baker’s music is drawn from some deep well in Peru. At first blush it may seem arid, even a little bleak, but a few more listens reveal the quiet joy that is his real message. Snapshots of the days and trials of our lives. Sadness, of course, but in its place in the natural cycles of hope, love and the business of “carrying on.” He achieves a beautiful balance of dark and light that will leave you with smiles and tears in equal measure.
It takes a little work to enter the world of Sam Baker. Do that work.
Three things you should know about Sam Baker: (1) he took up painting after he mastered songwriting, (2) he played varsity football with fellow musician Tommy Alverson, and (3) he has self-released three critically acclaimed albums, Mercy, Pretty World, and Cotton, which make up what he calls his “Mercy Trilogy”, as well as the more recent Say Grace.