Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon’s Nonesuch debut is, he admits, “a lonesome record.” Despite its often elegiac, solitary feel, this is a work borne out of friendship and intensive collaboration, recorded in London with a small coterie of virtuosic multi-instrumental players: Thomas Bartlett, Shahzad Ismaily, and Chris Vatalaro. The folk songs, shape-note hymns, and country ballads that Amidon performs deal on the surface with the darkest, most fundamental of issues-the specter of death, the looming clouds of war, unquenchable longing, unrequited love. Yet there is beauty and comfort in these time-tested words and well-worn melodies and in Amidon’s simple, emotionally direct delivery of these songs, as captured here on tape by the legendary English recording engineer Jerry Boys. Like a glimpse of early sunlight peeking over a darkened mountain, they offer a kind of respite, a sense of life’s troubles shared. They also provide a patchwork portrait of Amidon himself, with each of these tunes representing a facet of the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s own history, his memories, his travels, and his discoveries.
The Vermont-born and raised, London-based Amidon’s particular gift is not to compose new songs, but to rework and repurpose traditional melodies into a striking new form that makes them feel very much his own. He delivers these songs in a hauntingly plainspoken voice, one that encompasses sadness and stoicism, vulnerability and wisdom. As Pitchfork has said, “his interpretations are so singular that it stops mattering how (or if) they existed before.” His approach to developing his repertoire has a lot in common with the appropriation techniques of visual artists who re-contextualize a familiar image, especially in the way he is able to introduce jazz-oriented and avant-garde elements into his arrangements or disrupt them with a startling burst of noise or dissonance. But it’s equally akin to quilt-making, taking swatches of someone else’s melodies and words and stitching them together with his own guitar or banjo riffs and embroidering them with fiddle, piano, trumpet, or clarinet.
Amidon expresses a broad view of what constitutes a folk tradition: Bright Sunny South features a re-arrangement of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” (from The Emancipation of Mimi) and a surprisingly poignant take on Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” (from Live Like You Were Dying, an album, Amidon notes, that ponders in a surprisingly frank manner the same life-and-death concerns as some of these century-old numbers he has revived). Those were songs that Amidon and his boyhood chum and longtime musical foil Thomas Bartlett listened to obsessively when they were on tour together, so they’re firmly stuck in his head, inextricably mixed in with the personal catalog of old-time tunes he carries inside him. And speaking of songs with a deep personal resonance, Amidon also includes a version of “Weeping Mary,” a shape-note hymn his parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, had recorded with the Vermont-based Word of Mouth Chorus for Nonesuch Records on the pioneering 1977 disc Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns From the Sacred Harp Tradition.
Bright Sunny Sout is Amidon’s fourth disc in six years and is close in spirit, he feels, to his spare 2007 debut effort, the homemade But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, in which he and fledgling producer Bartlett, recording under the group name samamidon, learned as they rolled tape: “It was very much a process of discovery for the both of us. At that point, the final take was the one where I was able to get all the way through without messing the guitar part up.” He recorded two subsequent albums with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson for the Iceland-based Bedroom Community label, All Is Well and I See the Sign, in which fellow New England native and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly contributed adventurous orchestral arrangements that artfully counterbalanced Amidon’s stark delivery.