For Sam Amidon, there is no difference between an old rural folk ballad and a new urban radio jam. On his new album,
Bright Sunny South, he covers both Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw, who join the illustrious ranks of Dock Boggs, children's
folk singer Ella Jenkins, R. Kelly, Tears for Fears, and Katrina and the Waves in his catalogue of covers. He brings the
sentiments from each song into his own weird world-- some Appalachian mountain holler, essentially removed from time.
These covers could have come across as cheap stunts, not unlike those acoustic approximations of rap hits, but instead
they’ve become essential to Amidon’s catalog. Born into a musical family and trained since infancy on fiddle and banjo,
he does not view old-time music as an easy path to authenticity, just as he has no use for suspenders and tweed.
On the other hand, he understands that the folk tradition extends to pop music. Amidon is not awestruck by the
songs he sings, whether they’re several decades or several months old, and that gives his music-- especially
on his new album-- a breeziness that underscores rather than undercuts the songs’ sense of persistent loneliness.
Not quite as stylized as 2010’s I See the Sign, but certainly no less ambitious, Bright Sunny South is a quiet,
austere album that emphasizes Amidon’s banjo playing and singing. Again he’s working with longtime friend
and collaborator Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman). But the new presence here is Jerry Boys, the legendary
studio engineer best known for his work with Steeleye Span, Sandy Denny, and Vashti Bunyan. He creates
in these songs a naturalistic space, suggesting the shape of a room or a copse of trees around the performer,
while still maintaining a throughline with Amidon’s previous albums. Songs like “I Wish I Wish” and the title track,
a lament by a soldier leaving home, sound emotionally and musically austere: less folk hymns than interior
monologues full of barely repressed angers and resignations.
From the ground up Amidon reimagines these old tunes, some of which have been sung both in and out of
the indie-folk realm innumerable times (“I Wish I Wish”, for example, comes from the same source material
as Uncle Tupelo’s “I Wish My Baby Was Born”, off March 16-20, 1992, although the two versions sound
remarkably different). His voice goes eloquently flat at particularly dramatic moments, usually to evoke
some desperation at parting ways with a loved one, and his strange phrasing molds these melodies into
new and unexpected shapes. On the shape-note hymn “Weeping Mary”-- famously recorded in the 1970s
by the Word of Mouth Chorus, whose membership included Amidon’s parents-- he lets his voice trail off
into an arrhythmic murmur, chewing over the syllables as well as the concept of “glory glory glory.”
Yet the best moments on Bright Sunny South may actually be the least lonely passages, the ones that emphasize
a group dynamic. Working with a skeleton crew of a band-- mostly strings and percussion, with brief interjections
of horns-- Amidon interrupts the delicate reveries of “He’s Taken My Feet” for a noisy bridge, as though he’s stolen
a glimpse of Hell to reinforce his salvation. As he ponders that very concept on “Weeping Mary”, the song goes in and
out of focus, as Bartlett creates a prismatic shift of woodwinds. “As I Roved Out” may be the loosest, the loudest, and
the most unhinged Amidon has ever sounded on record. As he scribbles out a rackety riff on his banjo, he turns to
the instrument for moral support. “What is it, banjo?” he beseeches, just as drummer Chris Vatalaro runs away
with the song. “Did you ever feel such pain?” Even at its most baroque, the music remains essential to the tangled
stories these songs recount and the troubled characters Amidon inhabits.
About that Mariah Carey cover. “Shake It Off” was the third single on 2005 album, The Emancipation of Mimi,
but it remains minor on Bright Sunny South as well. Played on piano at a molasses pace, the songs sounds stiff
on its own and shoehorned into the tracklist, as Amidon cannot sell the commercial references to Calgon (tellingly,
he omits the verse about Louis Vuitton). He fares better with Tim McGraw’s ruminative “My Old Friend”, from 2004’s
Live Like You Were Dying. As though a refute to anyone who would mindlessly dismiss commercial country music,
Amidon retains the song’s melodic skeleton, slows it down a notch, transposes it to a minor key, and creates something
that sounds like the long-lost sequel to “I See A Darkness”, another song about old friends with a long history. And that’s
what distinguishes Amidon from the pack of folk revivalists currently enamored with pre-rock Americana: He not only has
an impressively deep knowledge of traditional song forms, but takes liberties with the country's past in order to document
his own personal present.