Lone Star: Discovering the Music of Sam Baker

I’m one of those blue-state, Honda-driving, latte liberals who doesn’t think Texas should have been admitted into the Union in 1845:  the whole scheme was a pro-slavery naked power grab (Of course, every state in the Union is the result of a naked power grab, but the case of Texas appears more egregious than most).  If Governor Rick Perry or one the current candidates for his job want the state to secede, my first impulse is:  Be My Guest.

This opinion might have something to do with the fact that other than a frantic 20-minute layover at Dallas-Fort Worth airport on the way to LAX four years ago, I’ve never actually set foot in the Lone Star State.  But when the better angels of my nature prevail, I remember that for every George W. Bush Texas has produced (er, make that inherited) there’s also been a Molly Ivins or Robert Benton.  Actually, much of the imagined Texas I’ve admired from afar has come from music.

For many years now, I’ve been a big Lyle Lovett fan.  His latest album, Natural Forces, has been a staple of my automotive listening for the past few months.  Lovett is a wonderful musician and songwriter, two talents that are greatly augmented by an alternatively mordant and bawdy wit.  The latter in particular prevails on the new record.  ”Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” is a hilarious celebration of onanism (“The moral of this sordid tale/Is you just can’t stop the U.S. Male”), while “Pantry” takes Lovett’s longtime obsession with food and turns it into an extended metaphor for sexual fidelity.

A few months ago, an old friend and adoptive Texan sent me a set of three CDs described by the Austin American-Statesman as the “Mercy Trilogy” by native son Sam Baker:  Mercy (2004), Pretty World (2007) and the recently released Cotton (2009).  The first thing that struck me about these records is their gorgeous packaging, illustrated and designed by the multi-talented Baker himself, which single-handedly challenges the otherwise hard to beat logic of mp3 downloads.  It’s taken me a while to digest the actual music on these disks, a project that as of this writing is incomplete.  But I’ve heard enough at this point to say that Baker is the most impressive musician I’ve encountered in a decade.

Why? First of all, Baker, a writer in the tradition of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle, has extraordinary gifts as a storyteller.  He’s one of these people who can narrate a life in three minutes.  A great example in this regard is his song “Iron,” from Mercy, in which the point of view shifts between a hard-working alcoholic father and his enabling companion, who explains to a friend that the father of her babies really a sweet man when he isn’t drunk.  This struggling couple is riveting in its own right before a car accident swivels the song in another direction and brings it to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Baker’s narrative gifts extend in other directions as well.  He’s adept at evoking settings that include Reno (“Slots,” from Pretty World) to the Texas Hill Country (the title track of Cotton) to, surprisingly enough, Boston (“Snow,” also from Cotton).  And he’s a master of characterization, perhaps nowhere more so than when his narrators are less than completely reliable, like that of “Who’s Gonna Be Your Man?” (Cotton).

One reason why Baker is so convincing is that he uses his voice — which I’ll be charitable and call distinctive in a Bob Dylan kind of way — to great effect. Sometimes its brusqueness becomes a form of authority, as it does on “Cotton”; at other times the almost awkward urgency with which he sings gives the music an unexpected poignancy, apparent in the sense of recovered purity in the title track of Pretty World. Baker’s voice is tastefully framed by his rootsy band, which plays with understated proficiency.  The production values on all three albums is first-rate.

But the quality that sets Baker apart from his musical peers, and leads me to write about him here, is his truly marvelous feel for American musical history.  The key to his accomplishment on these records is his strikingly postmodern capacity to breathe new life into that tradition by deploying it in new contexts.  Cotton begins with a simply gorgeous rendition of “Dixie” (sung by Baker’s sister, Chris Baker-Davies) that complicates this racist song with the beauty and longing that has always characterized the minstrel tradition from which it sprang.  He follows it with the title track, in which the flip side of cotton country is depicted in all its harshness and yet in a song that expresses a kind of tough beauty of its own.  In other cases, Baker will take snatches of classics like “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and deploy them in ways that may seem funny or even incongruous and yet upon reflection make a lot of sense (In this regard Baker is a little like Lovett).

Perhaps the most stunning example of creative musical sampling is the way Baker uses Stephen Foster’s classic “Hard Times Come Again No More” in “Odessa,” from Pretty World.  The song begins with a couple verses of “Hard Times” by Baker-Davies, before segueing into a story about a spoiled brat from oil country (“the dark crude flowed/the wild oats scattered”) whose arrogance has disastrous consequences for a young woman who gets in the way of his indulgences.  The point of the juxtaposition would seem to be an implicit comment about class conflict, until the two melodies converge into counterpoint, which suddenly augments the meaning of Foster’s song in a way that simultaneously demonstrates Baker’s artistry as well as demonstrates, yet again, the seemingly bottomless resonance of “Hard Times.”  It’s breathtaking, really; I gasped aloud the first time I heard it.

I would not describe Sam Baker as an unknown artist; he’s clearly got a local following, and his website shows him to be touring abroad as well as generating a small critical buzz.  Given the technological innovations in sound recording of recent decades, it’s probably never been easier to get into the recording industry than it is now — and, for that very reason, it’s probably never been harder to break through to a national audience than it is now.

jpcpicMoreover, in his mid-fifties, Baker is no spring chicken in what is decisively a young person’s business (actually, his career was delayed by life-threatening injuries sustained when the train he was riding in Peru was attacked by terrorists in 1996, a subject he references in his songs).  But there are few artists in popular music who deserve attention more than he does.  Here’s hoping that a few more of us will pay heed, and homage, to what Texas can do.

Jim Cullen

Mr. Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and is the author of Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition among other books. He blogs at American History Now (www.amhistnow.blogspot.com)

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

Published by the LA Progressive on March 3, 2010
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