In my time as a college radio DJ at the University of Columbia, I became a devoted disciple of one of the longest running shows at the station, the Red Bank Bar & Grill Show, hosted by the inestimable Uncle Gram. [The show comes on 9 AM-Noon or 10 AM-Noon every Saturday morning on WUSC 90.5-FM). UG hosts an all-Americana show that boasts an extraordinarily vast range of artists and constant stream of new and largely unheard music each week. I often tell people that UG turns me on to at least one of my “new favorite artist” every few months that I would never have heard otherwise.
One of the first of these artists, and the one that made the biggest impact on me, was singer/songwriter Sam Baker. Baker is a man with an amazing storytelling ability, an evocative voice and a way with words that bares comparison to such lyrical luminaries as Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. His records feature his languid-yet-wrenching guitar picking and cosmic Americana backing that allows the songs themselves to remain the focus. Baker has two records out now (2004’s Mercy and 2007’s Pretty World) and another one on the way (entitled Cotton), and each is a work of ineffable beauty.
On a slightly preemptive note, some people, upon an initial confrontation with Baker’s music, have difficulty with the sung-spoken gravel of the man’s voice, which has its own beauty to it but can be a bit of an acquired taste. Also, a listener might appreciate it more knowing a bit more about the back story of Sam Baker’s life. In 1986, Baker, 32 years old at the time, was traveling through Peru by train when a terrorist bomb (planted by a Maoist group in Peru known as “The Shining Path”) wrecked the train and ended up killing many of the passengers, including a German family sitting next to Baker. Baker himself nearly bled to death, and survives now with a serious of afflictions, including a shrapnel in his leg that left him with a limp, brain damage that destroyed parts of his memory (including, ironically for a writer of such gifts that he has today, vocabulary loss), renal failure, gangrene, and partial hearing lost from the blast. His left hand was mangled so bad he could no longer form chords with it, and he had to train himself to hold a pick with and then re-learned to play guitar left handed. Given all of this, and the extensive physical and mental rehabilitation he went through, you perhaps come to realize how much these songs must mean to Baker–and they might just begin to mean that much to you too…
Sam Baker – “Odessa”