The late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown would probably be proud of Samantha Fish’s approach. The oft cantankerous Brown would frequently snub basic blues; embracing his brand of “American music” which included country, Cajun, jazz, and blues. Still only in her late twenties, Fish could easily have built a career as a guitar shredding blues woman. She proved herself damn good in that role in the albums she delivered prior to this year and in her tireless touring schedule. Yet, the hard-working Fish seems to have some of Gate’s spirit. She doesn’t want to be hemmed in. “You should always get outside of the box,” Fish says. “Challenging yourself is how you grow.”
Belle of the West is her fifth studio album, having released her first at the age of 20. Earlier this year she stunned us with Chills and Fever, a mash-up of vintage Detroit R&B and garage soul featuring horns and backing from members of the Detroit Cobras. For this effort, she returned to the rural, relaxed setting of the Dickinsons’ Zebra Ranch in the hills of North Mississippi where, once again, Luther Dickinson produced and played as he did on her 2015 release, Wild Heart. Unlike that one, this could just as easily be labeled a roots/Americana album as a blues album given the country and singer-songwriter elements in the mix. Blues-rock is completely absent in favor of mostly acoustic instruments.
The players include some of the region’s most notable musicians including Tikyra Jackson (drums/vocals), Amy LaVere (upright bass/vocals), Lightnin’ Malcolm (guitar/harmonica/vocals), Lille Mae (violin/vocals), Jimbo Mathus (Fender Rhodes/harmonica/vocals), Trina Raimey (drums) and Shardé Thomas (fife/drums/vocals), granddaughter of the legendary Southern bluesman Otha Turner. Eight of the eleven are Fish originals with Mathus penning the title track, along with R.L. Burnside’s “Po’ Black Mattie” and Lillie Mae’s “Nearing Home.”
” To me, this is a natural progression,” says Fish. “It’s a storytelling record by a girl who grew up in the Midwest. It’s a personal album. I really focused on the songwriting and the vocals and the melodies and the emotion, and on bringing another dimension to what I do. I wasn’t interested in shredding on the guitar, although we did end up doing a few heavier things…It’s definitely a song record and an emotional record, and I’m really excited to play these songs live.” She goes on to say, “…Another thing that we had on this record that I hadn’t done in the past was having all of these beautiful female voices, with Amy and Lillie Mae singing backup. There’s a lot of harmonizing on this record, which I’m a big fan of. I looked around the studio at one point and realized that there were more women than men in the band, and I thought that was pretty beautiful. It felt so good to make a record that way.” Luther Dickinson helmed The Wandering project with female players, including LaVere and Thomas. He brought some of that vibe to this one.
Just as she did on her previous album, Samantha finds a way to infuse some crisp blues guitar solos into many of the tunes but it’s the harmonies, the fife and drums as well as Lillie Mae’s fiddle that round out this new sound. Fish wails away both vocally and on guitar for the most blues-driven tracks, “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “No Angels.” She trades verses with Mathus on the country-flavored title track, and with Lillie Mae on the lilting “Nearing Home;” and is in a call and response mode with Lightnin’ Malcolm on “Po’ Black Mattie.”
So, five years from now we may be asking whether Samantha is a blues, roots, rock, or R&B artist? She could be any or all of them. One thing we do know – her star is rising at a rapid trajectory.