Sam Amidon’s talents are best described in the liner notes of his new album.
“All songs are traditional, reworked & arranged by Sam Amidon.”
Amidon is part preservationist, part visionary in the sense that he takes old songs (field recordings, fiddle tunes, Sacred Harp hymns), extracts their essence, and rebuilds them to his own specifications.
Typically he plays banjo, occasionally it’s guitar or fiddle, with a stray squall of electric guitar or a swell of strings in the mix. His voice is often as flat and unvarnished as his source material, sounding like a Dust Bowl troubadour captured on his back porch — in Brooklyn.
That has been Amidon’s world since childhood, raised in Vermont as the son of traditional musicians Peter and Mary Alice Amidon. He’s now living in England with his wife, singer-songwriter Beth Orton, and their child.
Released in May, “Bright Sunny South” is Amidon’s latest adventure in old-time music made modern. Amidon will perform songs from it at T.T. the Bear’s Place on Wednesday.
Q. You grew up surrounded by the traditional music that you now reinterpret. What kind of little kid likes fiddle tunes, gospel, and Sacred Harp?
A. Strangely enough, it wasn’t even that weird that I was into that kind of music. In Vermont there are so many people who moved there because of people like my parents, people committed to the community aspect of folk music. People around my town weren’t out to become well-known performers. They were aware that it’s social music that’s not meant to be performed for an audience. Obviously, at school there weren’t other kids who were into that, except my best friend Thomas [Bartlett, who frequently collaborates with Amidon and performs under the band name Doveman], who I grew up with. People think of children wanting to fit in, but really a lot of kids are also into something that sets them apart, makes them a little weird. I was happy to embrace that.
Q. You mentioned that this music wasn’t originally made for commercial purposes, but when you started performing and recording it, did you ever feel that disconnect? Was it strange to put it out as a product that would be sold?
A. Good question. What I do on these albums isn’t really folk music in that sense. The folk music is just source material for me to make whatever music with my friends that’s creative and weird and exciting to me. It’s experimental music, songwriting-style music even though I don’t write songs. I’m like a co-songwriter.
Q. What do you look for in a song to reimagine?
A. It’s very gut instinct. On the one hand I definitely grew up steeped in traditional music, but I wasn’t a folk singer. My parents were, but I was really a fiddle player and played Irish fiddle tunes. That’s my expertise. Usually it ends up being a song that has had some personal meaning for me or that gets stuck in my head. The way it tends to come back out on my albums is that often my role in the music comes first. I’ll mess around on the guitar and write a guitar part. Through playing it, then hopefully a melody will pop into my head. The folk song often comes last in the process of making the music.
Q. Is there a curatorial aspect to what you do? Do you want someone to hear your version and then seek out the original?
A. Totally. My instinct has always been to find something and then show it to people. Some music lovers want to keep everything to themselves, but I couldn’t if I tried. By taking these folk songs out of context and putting them in different emotional zones, maybe people can then hear someone like [old-time banjo player and singer] Dock Boggs in a new light.
‘By taking these folk songs out of context and putting them in different emotional zones, maybe people can then hear someone like Dock Boggs in a new light. ’
Q. You’re known for doing something similar with pop music, having recorded songs by R&B singer R. Kelly and even Mariah Carey [whose “Shake It Off” is reworked on Amidon’s new album].
A. Sure, totally. R. Kelly, in my mind, is the major songwriter of the last 15 years. But because he’s so absurd that can be a real barrier for people.
Q. “Bright Sunny South” is your first album for Nonesuch Records. Not many people can say they’re on a label that their parents also recorded for.
A. None of us had ever even remembered that because they were on it as part of a group called the Word of Mouth Chorus. Nonesuch put out that record [“Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns From the Sacred Harp Tradition”] in the late ’70s, so when they approached me about a label, I was like, “I wouldn’t be the first Amidon to be on one of your records.”Interview has been condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.