Episode 329. Samantha Fish- Contemporary Blues Artist-Bourbon & Beyond
“You should always get outside of the box,” Samantha Fish says while discussing her boundary-breaking new album Belle of the West. “Challenging yourself is how you grow.”
After launching her recording career in 2009, Samantha Fish quickly established herself as a rising star in the contemporary blues. Since then, the charismatic young singer-guitarist-songwriter has earned a reputation as a rising guitar hero and powerful live performer while releasing a series of acclaimed albums showing her restless creative spirit, consistently taking her in new and exciting musical directions.
The New York Times called Fish “an impressive blues guitarist who sings with sweet power” and “one of the genre’s most promising young talents.” Her hometown paper, The Kansas City Star, noted, “Samantha Fish has kicked down the door of the patriarchal blues club” and observed that the young artist “displays more imagination and creativity than some blues veterans exhibit throughout their careers.”
Having already made it clear that she’s more interested in following her heart than in repeating past triumphs, Samantha Fish delivers some of her most compelling music to date with Belle of the West, her fifth studio album. The deeply soulful, personally charged 11-song set showcases Fish’s sublime acoustic guitar skills and her rootsy, emotionally resonant songwriting.
Such memorable new originals as “American Dream,” “Blood in the Water,” “Need You More,” and “Don’t Say You Love Me” demonstrate the artist’s knack for organic Americana songcraft. At the same time, a trio of cover tunes—R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie,” Lillie Mae’s “Nearing Home,” and the Jimbo Mathus-penned title track—attest to her considerable interpretive skills as well as her varied musical interests.
“To me, this is a natural progression,” Fish notes. “It’s a storytelling record by a girl who grew up in the Midwest. It’s very personal. I focused on the songwriting and vocals, the melodies and emotion, and bringing another dimension to my actions. I wasn’t interested in shredding on guitar, although we ended up with a few heavier tracks. I love Mississippi blues; there’s something very soulful and authentic about that style of music, so this was a chance to immerse myself in that.”
Fish recorded Belle of the West in the relaxed, rural creative atmosphere of the legendary Zebra Ranch Studios in the North Hills of Mississippi with producer Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstars fame). She worked previously on her 2015 album Wild Heart. The studio team included some of the region’s most iconoclastic musicians, including Dickinson, solo artist and Jack White associate Lillie Mae (whose distinctive vocals are featured on “Nearing Home”), much-traveled juke-joint blues artist Lightnin’ Malcolm (whose featured on “Poor Black Mattie”), Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Jimbo Mathus, upright bassist and beloved solo artist Amy LaVere, Tikyra Jackson, Trina Raimey and Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of the legendary Southern bluesman Otha Turner.
“I wanted to do this acoustic-electric record and tap into the style and swagger of Mississippi,” Fish states, adding, “Any time you dive into another place, another vibe, and a new group of people, you’re challenging yourself to grow musically. I felt very at home at a Zebra Ranch, and I’ve known Luther and Malcolm for years, so it was a very comfortable situation. When making a record like this, it has to feel natural if you want people to respond to it.
Belle of the West follows on the heels of Fish’s March 2017 release Chills & Fever, which achieved top 10 status in the Billboard Blues charts. Here she expanded her stylistic arsenal to take on a set of lesser-known vintage R&B gems, with help from members of garage-soul stalwarts the Detroit Cobras. “Having these two very different records come out back to back this year has been liberating,” says Samantha.
The creative drive that fuels Belle of the West and Chills & Fever has been crucial to Samantha Fish’s approach from the beginning. Growing up in a musical family in Kansas City, Missouri, she became obsessed with music early in life, taking up drums before switching to guitar at 15. By the time she was 20, she had formed her trio and self-released her first album. She soon caught the ear of the renowned blues label Ruf Records, which in 2011 released Girls with Guitars, which teamed her with fellow axewomen, Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. The same year saw Ruf release Fish’s solo studio debut, Runaway. The album was named Best Artist Debut at Memphis’s 2012 Blues Music Awards.
Black Wind Howlin’ (2013) and Wild Heart (2015) followed, winning considerable critical acclaim and establishing Fish as a prominent presence in the blues community. Wild Heart reached the top slot on Billboard’s blues chart. She also collaborated with blues-rock veterans Jimmy Hall and Reese Wynans on The Healers’ 2013 project. In addition, she jammed onstage with blues icon Buddy Guy and guested on Devon Allman’s album Turquoise.
Fish continues to maintain the same hardworking, prolific approach that’s carried her this far. “I think I’ve always had that,” she says. “Music is my life, so what other choice do I have but to go out and make music? We tour quite a bit, and maybe it’s crazy to put out two dramatically different albums in one year. But I like to work hard. This is who I am, and this is what I do, and when I’m writing, recording, and touring, I feel the most like myself. And now we have a moment where people are paying attention, so I have to make the most of it. I have a lot to say right now, so why not say it?”
Her musical future is an open road as far as Samantha Fish is concerned. “I’m never gonna be a traditional blues artist because that’s not who I am,” she asserts. “But it’s all the blues for me. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf came out, what they were doing didn’t sound like anything done in blues before. So you have to keep that kind of fire and spirit. I will never do Muddy Waters better than Muddy Waters, so I must be who I am and find my best voice.