Photo by Ryan Musick
Though rooted in Americana music, the introduction of keys, organ and horns lend a soulful and bluesy touch to Sam Lewis’s music. The Nashville-by-way-of-Knoxville songwriter has been honing his craft professionally since 2012’s self-titled album and has developed working friendships with the likes of Chris Stapleton who has compared Lewis to Townes Van Zant – not a bad endorsement if you can get it.
This year’s Loversity found Lewis setting aside the acoustic in favor of an electric guitar which, while not straying too far from the successful formula, gives the music a little more pep, a little more crafted nuance while maintaining a certain timeless Nashville feel.
The day I gave Lewis a call, he told me he was just hanging out at home, doing the typical things he does when he’s not out on the road playing his music to, often, unsuspecting audiences. “I just brought the trash cans in from the alley,” he says with a chuckle. “I went and registered and voted. I went and picked up some merchandise from my screen printer. It’s not a place you go to and clock in, the time clock is kind of always on.”
You just did some dates with Over the Rhine and you’re getting ready to do some dates with Doyle Bramhall II. How familiar are you with the bands you tour with?
Most of the time, I’m familiar. Over the Rhine, I’ve known about for a long time. I wasn’t that familiar with their music but I knew it was a husband and wife duo and it’s Americana stuff. I couldn’t have told you one song that they did before I played shows with them. I didn’t know what they were known for. A lot of time, I don’t do a lot of research. One of my favorite things to do, I don’t get to see a lot of music that often, because I’m usually working. So I like to see them, for the first time, when I open for them and kind of form my opinions after that first show versus reading reviews or listening to something on line or watching a YouTube video. I don’t want any preconceived notions. It’s good to know what they’re about, but I don’t go into it expecting too much.
I discovered you when I saw your name on the Rumba Cafe site where you were listed as the opener for Friday night’s Doyle Bramhall II’s show.
I was happy to hear that I was going to be doing a couple of dates with Doyle but then also being a very practical minded individual, I thought, “Well, what the fuck am I doing opening for this guy? I don’t really do anything like that. I’m more of a storyteller, singer/songwriter”, especially when I’m by myself. Most of my music is full-band compositions that I’ve released but when I’m doing a solo thing, it’s a little bit of a different show and I don’t really have that record yet that embodies that more acoustic, intimate type of thing. The recorded versions I have, the songs are there, I don’t think they’re covered up, but there’s definitely more treatment, especially on Loversity. I had a little more fun making that one in terms of more experimental stuff because I put the acoustic down and picked up the electric and wanted to get a little weirder.
I do the Doyle shows and then I have a Samantha Fish supporting date in Massachusetts and then a couple of dates with this a band from North Carolina called Mipso, they are more of a bluegrass/Americana style. That makes more sense. Again, with Samantha Fish, I was like, “Who is this? Oh, okay, she’s a guitar star. “I don’t know how these people are going to react to what I’m doing. Mostly guitar tech nerds don’t give a shit about songs that you wrote about your grandmother’s house. I’m never offended by it, we all have different tastes and everything but those are harder audiences to impress, especially if it’s a club and people are standing on their feet.
I opened up for JD McPherson a couple of months ago in standing-only rooms and, I love JD and I love the band, but it certainly is not a show I’d want to see a solo act open for because I’m not there to hear that. I’m there to groove and have a few drinks, not get sensitive (laughs).
You answered my next question about whether you’d be playing solo in Columbus or with a band. Do you ever do shows with a full band?
It’s about 70/30, 70% are solo. What I do is fairly versatile. I have 3 different forms – I have a solo, a duo and a full band. The fewer people playing with me, I can be kind of silly and try to express that. Sometimes I’m too silly and I get in the way of the songs and after the show people are like, “Wow, you’re really funny” and I’m like, “Great, great, you didn’t listen to any of the songs. I let my humor get in the way.” That’s kind of hard to balance. But, the more people I have play with me, the more we just rock. I’ll say a few things but we let the music do what it does.
When you’re opening for people, in my case, in the last 3 months I’ve opened for Donovan Frankenreiter, Over the Rhine, Mipso, Doyle, I’m opening for Tedeschi Trucks … I keep waiting for an email from their team, “Um, like, we thought he was someone else. We don’t want him to open for us now” because I’m such a fan of their music and really happy they are going to pay me to watch them. But, yeah, I’m lucky enough that I can fit in about anywhere and I tend to be more of a pleasant surprise with audiences who didn’t know who I was or, sometimes, didn’t even know I was on the bill until they are buying my CD.
As an artist, especially as a developing artist, my job is to get better and get as good as I can with an audience that’s not mine, make some fans out of that audience, learn a few things and hopefully make whoever is headlining want to validate your existence. Just because you’re on the bill doesn’t mean the headliner is actually into what you do. My goal is to make them – as well as their fans – know who I am and what I’m about.
When you’re opening for audiences that aren’t yours, how conscious are you of the fact that there are people that are either talking through your entire set or holding up their phones in your face and taking tons of photos and video?
I prefer people talking than having their phone up the entire time or even worse, they are on their phone, not taking photos or really paying attention to you. When it starts distracting other people, that’s where I really … there’s enough distractions already. Isn’t that why we’re here, to take a break from all the distractions? You’re not doing that in a movie theater. I went to a show last night and it’s getting more difficult for me to tolerate those types of actions. I went to see the Sweethearts of the Rodeo with Marty Stuart. I’m in the comp seat area, so it’s really tricky when you’re sitting around people that either work for or are related to the band and you can’t really police the shenanigans they are doing, but it’s like, “Of all people … just put the phone down and watch the show. Disappear into something for 90 minutes, it’s good for you.”
I don’t know, it’s just where we’re at. To try to fight it, I just don’t know to begin. I’m not the biggest Jack White fan but he introduced the new policy this year where, when you come in to the venue, you put your phone into a little bag and they lock it and you take it into the show. If you need to use it, you have to have them unlock it. As crazy as that is, I think it’s worth trying. There was a time not too long ago where we didn’t have these things. Last night this guy took like 50 photos throughout the night and they all looked the same! I was like, “Are you even going to know that this photo was during ‘You Ain’t Going Anywhere.’?”
In my head I imagine all these musicians like you having a club, getting together for coffee or drinks. Is that real life or is that just in my head?
I think that’s a glorified perception of Nashville. I’ve been here 9 years. I’ve felt more in touch with the “community” in the first 3 years than I have in the last 3 years. There’s a lot of variables there, I think I was in town a lot more and not traveling as much so I couldn’t help but go down to the 5 Spot and kick it or I couldn’t help going to see my friends play a show here or get some food there or go bowling with someone. That stuff does exist and it’s ongoing but most of the people I associate with are either touring artists – therefore we only hang out when it’s cold and we’re in town – or it’s people that don’t perform and they are in other facets of the industry or in a totally different industry.
What is Nashville like these days?
Nashville has melting pot types of things going on. It’s a town built on tourism and I think a lot of people forget that. It’s really popular right now. I think it’s going through an identity crisis, but I find that most of the more popular acts in recent years that are based here didn’t start here. So it’s a really, really good town to be based out of if you’re really cooking with grease.
Geographically it’s great, 8 or 10 hours any direction and you’re really covering some ground. It’s still fairly affordable but it’s turning into a little Atlanta. It’s getting expensive – I live in East Nashville. A lot of the hype and narrative of East Nashville is getting pushed out to surrounding suburbs, mainly due to the cost of living. I don’t think we’re that gifted in artist development here – it’s kind of “go and get what you can get and get as much of it as you can and if you can share, do so” but, unfortunately, we’re in the entertainment industry so you kind of have to be all about you all of the time. That’s not really how I’m wired, I like to share but if you do get sidetracked, you can get left behind. I also believe in really good music and really good songs. I have a lot of good friends – I respect them but I wouldn’t say that much about their music. It’s weird, Nashville’s been good to me. It takes time building what you’re trying to build but I think I’m getting to a place that, in the next few years, it’s not going to matter where I’m based out of.
When I talked to Lilly Hiatt a couple of years ago, she said she grew up listening to Nirvana and Liz Phair which surprised me because I don’t hear that at all in her music. Do you have those bands that you listened to when you were a teenager that have no influence on your music today?
Shit yeah, most of the stuff I love I wouldn’t even think or know how to go about reinventing it or experiment with it. Some of that comes with ignorance, a lot of it is that I try to make what I think makes the most sense and if it’s practical than this is what it sounds and looks like. Most of the time I can’t compare it to the things I listened to in my teens and formative years. I’m looking right now at every one of the Nirvana CDs that I’ve got. I just recently listened to that Live from the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah record, I was on a long drive in Florida at night and I put it on and it was awesome. I don’t know if that seeps into what I’m doing, those are some really good songs but it’s a whole different type of energy and I find that the gear that I create and the gear that it gets exercised in is more of a John Prine and Bill Withers type of vibe. I like things a little slower, I like things a little deeper and a little roomier, a lot of space. I don’t know that I know how to make busy sounding stuff. I love words and songs with meanings and I like for those to be pretty understood.
I feel like I was raised by MTV. Did you get your music education from MTV or did you learn from your parents, siblings or friends?
Yeah, I grew up with an eclectic batch of records to throw on and dig into at a very young age. By the time I got deep into Dylan and then discovered John Prine, it changed a lot for me. You don’t need to ask John Prine what he’s talking about, he tells you. That’s a big difference between his lyrics and Dylan’s lyrics. With Dylan, there might be something more to it, sometimes he just says shit. As much as I enjoy both, Prine felt a little more within reach, “this is a study guide that I think I’m going to get more out of and I might be able to contribute more to this field of writing.” And the Bill Withers thing, they are kind of weird songs as well but the things that he recorded with, you can sink your teeth into it a little more. It fills whatever void I have in that department in a very good way.
At a young age, I knew a lot of Roy Orbison songs because that was laying around the house. That’s country music but it’s the most dramatic form of songs and approach, it’s like country-opera. It was so captivating at a young age. If he’s faking the conviction, then he’s one of the best actors in the world. But then I would put on Jackson 5 and ELO and then I’d listen to “Born to Run”. When you’re a kid, some of the country stuff, like Willie, Waylon, Johnny Cash, is just boring and can get redundant. I don’t know how many more songs we need about beer, trucks or women. But, it’s simple and there’s a lot of beauty in that simplicity and it’s fucking hard to write a really good, simple song. When you get older and start going through some of the things they are singing about, it’s easy to relate to and it’s something you can count on. Some of those songs never let you down. I think you need to have some experience under your belt before you can enjoy those types of what have become standards.
You know who I’ve only recently really started listening to? Paul Simon. When I started buying my own records, he was in the Graceland/You Can Call Me Al phase of his career and I didn’t really love that stuff. But I’ve gotten some of his early solo records and can’t stop listening to them.
I agree. Paul Simon is like James Taylor, he’s almost like the Beatles at times. There are songs you know and you don’t really remember how you learned them, but you know them. He’s one of those guys that, as talented as he is and as many records as he’s sold, I don’t hear his name as often as I feel like you should. Some of the best songwriting ever is by Paul Simon and he had the ability to be able to say things that Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen couldn’t say that way. The songs are much more approachable and, at times, more fun. All this stuff finds you in different ways. I don’t think you discover things, I think they find you, they present themselves to you when you need them. I’ve tried to revisit some things I was into in my 20s and I’m like, “Why did I care about this?” It doesn’t matter because apparently I needed it then and I fortunately had it then but I don’t need it now and that’s totally fine.
Going to throw out some situations and I want to know the artist, song or album that you’re listening to in these situations.
Short drive to the grocery store
A long vacation where you’ll be driving for hours.
I got into podcasts because they are very accessible and a lot are really great interviews. I really enjoy listening to Marc Maron’s WTF, I’m a nerd so I listen to the West Wing Weekly and also there is a great podcast called Desert Island Discs. The Song Exploder is a really fun one too.
What about when you’re already in a good mood and you throw something on to dance around the house to.
I’ve been, for the last couple of years, I’ve developed more of a palate for instrumental music, just for a break. There’s a few different things I listen to like this great African band by the name of Tinariwen, it’s music you can’t really hear anywhere else. It’s different patterns of sounds. I love Allen Toussaint, it’s really great to put when you’re just hanging out and want some – I hate to say “background” – music, it’s called The Bright Mississippi. There’s a really great band, I can’t pronounce their name but I can spell it …
Yep, I already know who you are talking about.
K – h – r – u – a – n – g – b – i – n.
Israel Nash was talking about them when I interviewed him.
That’s been refreshing to listen to. With Spotify, it’s so easy and painless to explore and discover new music. That’s a fun one to let play through. The record that I’m referring to is Con Tondo El Mundo. They are the backing band for Leon Bridges. It’s a great combination of vintage and throwback sounds with new age treatment and attack on certain things. I’m usually the last person to know what’s hip, what’s in. I’m very dependent on my friends to clue me in.
That sort of ruins my next question. Is there an artist you love that nobody else knows about?
I live inside my ass. I have to, nobody else can do it for me nor would they want to. It’s hard for me to listen to other singer/songwriters because I already have one of those in my head and he never shuts up! It’s very, very seldom that I come across something on my own.
What about when you’re feeling sad and depressed and you want to hear something that matches your mood?
Lightning Hopkins, Ray Charles, that kind of stuff is really good to just relish in.
An album you throw on to get yourself in the mood to attend a high school reunion.
That would never happen but if I had to, probably Rage Against the Machine.
And, the last one, an album you’d like to cover from start to finish.
I have done that before and I’d do it again because it’s a really great record but I did a whole different treatment, it was more of a country/funk type of sound – Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, just great songs. I took them and reconfigured a few of the songs and put a four-piece band to it. We turned a lot of songs on their side. There’s a YouTube video of me doing one of those songs with Kenny Vaughan and JT and Derrick. Kenny plays with Marty Stuart and J.T. and Derek are Chris Stapleton’s rhythm section. That was my first, and last, band. There’s a version of us doing “Time of the Preacher”.