Texan-born Sam Baker released Say Grace last year and it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2013, with Rolling Stone magazine naming it in their top five country albums of the year. Say Grace was his fourth album, but Baker’s music career has taken off relatively late after working on construction sites most of his life. He survived a near-death experience in 1986 when a train he was travelling on to Machu Picchu in Peru was blown up by a bomb left on board by Shining Path guerrillas. After experiencing such a traumatic event, it’s perhaps surprising that his music often takes a tender and sometimes humorous view of life through beautifully constructed lyrical stories. I managed to speak to him when he was in Sheffield, where he was performing as part of his UK tour.
How was the gig at Dingwalls last night? It was the first of your tour wasn’t it?
It was fun. I’m playing with Carrie Elkin and Chip Dolan and we play lots of shows so, you know, it was fun. I like London.
So do you tour with those guys all the time?
We try to when we can. Carrie has her own career and Chip has his own career, so we do it when we can pull it off … We’ve already had ten shows in Holland.
Are European tours a relatively new thing? Your music career seems to have had a boost after Bob Harris played one of your songs on his BBC Radio 2 show, but what were you doing previous to that?
I was building apartments, working as a project manager. I wasn’t really a musician, I wasn’t a professional musician. I always wanted to do that one record, that one good piece of art, and so we did it, we manufactured it and nothing happened for quite a while. Bob Harris got a copy off a dear friend and started spinning it. Things changed after that.
So you were working on a construction site? Is that why many of your songs, such as Iron and Dirt, tell stories of working men?
I write about the things that I’ve seen and the people I’m around, so I think [the subject matter] that’s more a reflection of who I’ve seen and been around. I think I’m interested in anything that I’m around, so I guess that’s what I became interested in.
Rolling Stone rated your last album, Say Grace, number five in the top country-music albums of 2013, but would you class yourself as a country-music artist?
I don’t know. That whole category thing, I don’t know what I am … I write whatever I write and I hope for the best. I’m not a skilful enough writer to write something that sounds like it’s country, or sounds like it’s bluegrass, or sounds like it’s folk. I start with trying to say something and use whatever musical tools I can find to say what I want to say. If it sounds country, I don’t know – it is what it is. If it sounds country or bluegrass or jazz, I think that’s more a function of what musical tool feels fit for the song, rather than me trying to say I want to sound like George Jones.
It is the storytelling you’re most interested in?
Yes, exactly, that’s the foundation of everything I try to do, the storytelling. The music flows in and around it. A lot of people say they grew up listening to ‘X’ and they want to sound like Jimmie Rodgers, or Hank Williams, or Prince, or somebody and I don’t know if that’s what I did. I love writing, so I think I come back to the storytellers.
There must be a lot of recognition coming your way after the critical acclaim of Say Grace? You said you’d been working on a building site and now you have a critically acclaimed album, has that been a big shift for you?
It’s changed everything! I’m not on a construction site! Let me tell you, any day you’re not on the construction site, you know, it’s a pretty good day. I was in London last night, I’m in Sheffield today, I’m playing with people I’m crazy about. We play music at night; nobody is falling off a roof, I don’t have to worry about concrete setting up bad, or the rain coming down, or the truck getting stuck, or a pump locking up … no, I’m in paradise. Oh man, there’s a lot worse ways to go. It’s the middle of the day and I’m sitting in a motel room not working. Is it a change? Yes! I’ll say that emphatically.
You have a positive view on life, yet you’ve been through an extremely traumatic event, the train bombing in Peru. [Baker was traveling to Machu Picchu in Peru in 1986 when a bomb that had been placed in his carriage by the Shining Path guerrilla group exploded, killing a family he was sitting with and many others. He suffered severe life-threatening injuries and lost much of the use of his left hand]. Has that affected your outlook on life? Did that near-death experience reshape your view of the world?
Absolutely, it changed my view of the world. For a while I went into a pretty dark place of bitterness and resentment. It was pretty bad. I think the the only way out of that dark, bad place was gratitude; to be grateful for what I had left after the blast. I couldn’t hear very well, I couldn’t walk very well and my brain didn’t work, but once I began to be grateful for what I had – and not being bitter about what I lost – you know, the world turned out to be a lot more beautiful.
I’ve read that while you were recuperating after the blast, you heard an internal voice that drove you on and encouraged you to make music. Is that why you mention religion and churches in your music so often? Are you a religious man?
I would say I’m more of a writer. If you look at William Faulkner or any of the writers, what happens is when you’re a child – and this is my opinion, I haven’t read this anywhere – you learn a language; I learned a language. I grew up on a prairie, and church was part of life on the prairie in the 50s and early 60s – there was a lot of church. Life was focused around the church and the songs of the church and the rhythms of the church, and I think so much of the language I’ve got, like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, I think a lot of the language I have comes from those days. It’s the reference point that I use because it was a religious cultural life in my small prairie town, it wasn’t plays or theatres; the stories mostly came through that religious culture. So when I tell stories these days, I still subconsciously and consciously go back to that language of childhood to describe basic stuff.
The blast caused such serious injuries you had to relearn how to play the guitar with your other hand. That must have been extremely difficult considering you also suffered brain injuries, did you ever want to give up?
We all do exactly what we have to do, I don’t think I processed it. I think it was just something I had to do. We have to go to the store to get groceries, we have to get water, I think I just had to relearn how to play.
I was listening to Isn’t Love Great the other night and thought the lyrics were wonderful; it’s a touching song about a relationship, but it also has a sense of humour running through it. Was that about anybody in particular?
That’s about a real couple – I won’t go into who that is. But it could be any couple, it’s a non-ironic song. I think couples have their own language, they say things to each other that an outsider would misunderstand or misconstrue; they use language that is unique just to that relationship and that’s what that songs is about. People really in love can say some pretty odd things, yet those words still say they love each other. There’s not an ounce of irony in it, it’s a completely straight ahead love song.
You also paint, if someone asked you to make a choice between art and music, which could you give up?
For me, music and painting are the same thing. If you’re in a wood shop, you have a table saw, you have a band saw, you got a chop saw. Well, music is a table saw, and painting is a band saw. They do basically the same thing, they’re just different techniques. The question I would have to face is: ‘Could I give up the whole wood shop?’ I don’t know, that would be hard.
It’s been great talking to you, Sam.
Take care of yourself and thank you for taking your time, I’m grateful. I hope to see you somewhere down the line.
Interview by Craig Scott, London and Sheffield. November 2014.