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Sam Amidon
Bright Sunny South Ryan Foley , May 15th, 2013 08:00

Clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist —call him what you'd like. Sam Amidon's approach to music-making — disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes, along with the occasional modern-day chart-topper — leaves the 31-year-old singer/songwriter with more than his share of fixed labels, even while his finished product eschews them all together. I mean, what do you call a cover of Mariah Carey's sprightly 'Shake It Off' that's been stripped of its lacquer finish, and then doused in tar and grit? Progressive bubblegum folk? It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Bright Sunny South is Amidon's sixth solo effort and like previous releases, the key to the album's potency lies in how the Brattleboro, Vermont, native creates emotional dichotomies and then bridges the expansive gulfs in between. Amidon's reinterpretations sound like the work of the bipolar. There are songs that are warm and familiar and enveloping; like listening to an uncle or a cousin or a neighbour fingerpick a folk ditty on a banjo, their foot tapping on the porch boards to keep time, their long whiskers stirring violently whenever they inhale before beginning a verse. Amidon then blithely transitions to songs that feel distant and pitiless and unforgiving; like hearing a country ballad come drifting down a nearby mountain, its words a grim murmur, its melody a stabbing hum, its performer forever anonymous.

Consider Bright Sunny South's adaptations of traditional folk fare like 'As I Roved Out' and 'Short Life'. In the former, Amidon is playful, daring, on the verge of hopping up and dancing. In the latter, his desolate melody and bits of keening fiddle underscore words of utter despair: "A short life of trouble / A few more days of woe." On both tracks, Amidon's passion and precision come together to create tracks that sound fresh and dynamic. The beauty of these songs is brought to the surface, where it delicately pops like a silvery bubble.

There's a legitimate skill involved here, recognizing which dusty, time-worn compositions will not flake and crumble in a modern artist's hands. However, declaring that Bright Sunny South's prowess can be attributed to the mere fact that Amidon possesses a good ear for music is probably unfair. On the title track, a Civil War ballad that's been played by the likes of Dock Boggs and Allison Krauss, Amidon is both everywhere and invisible in the landscape of the song. He makes the traditional elements feel authentic, while the personal touches he incorporates seem archaic.

The sacred hymn 'He's Taken My Feet' earns a similar treatment. Amidon's listless yet pious vocals turns the lyrics ("He's taken my feet from the mire and the clay / And he's placed them on the rock of ages") into reverential babble before he delivers sonic chaos: The track's final 90 seconds are loaded with hammering snare drums and squealing electric guitars. 'He's Taken My Feet' gracefully explores themes of deference and duty; Amidon's strident ending is a way of expressing how we often struggle with ourselves when it comes to performing deferential and dutiful acts.

However, Bright Sunny South isn't always so complex. Amidon's update of Tim McGraw's simple ode to companionship, 'My Old Friend', is more subdued yet more celebratory than the original. 'Streets of Derry', previously recorded by Irish folk acts like the Bothy Band and Oisin, is a restrained revival of a rather straightforward lament with the dead in question being a freshly hung insurgent love interest.

Aside from his reboots of Top 40 confection, it's difficult to envision Amidon's interpretations finding an audience outside of the most ardent followers of old-time folk music. But 'Streets of Derry' — and similarly, 'Weeping Mary', a hymn his parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, recorded for the 1977 Nonesuch Records compilation Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns from the Sacred Harp Tradition — exhibit Amidon's true intent. He sings strong and clear, not necessarily because he's stirred by revolutionary spirits or in the case of 'Weeping Mary', a desire to pledge his devotion to his god, but because he's immovably committed to preserving and sustaining these pure and intimate old songs.

In a way, this makes Amidon an active participant in what legendary American singer and multi-instrumentalist Pete Seeger dubbed "the folk process," the phenomenon in which folk music is passed from one generation to the next. Another key player in the modern folk revival, Englishman Cecil Sharp, once listed the three principles of that process: continuity, variation, selection. Three words that also brilliantly characterize Bright Sunny South.