Nashville songwriter Sam Lewis’s singular voice rooted in R&B

Maybe it started in Hillsville, Virginia, in Grade 9 — which is a good year for no one, ever — as a lonely only child in a school filled with students from scattered locales who’d grown up with every classmate but him, after he’d been moved around by his parents more often than they filed tax returns. Or it could have been while he was at various Walmarts, working in theft prevention, disguised as a shopper while rubbing elbows with the great American  underclass and unclassed looking for cheap socks and underwear while sometimes further reducing the price with five-finger-discounts. Perhaps it was when he started messing around more intensely with music in his early twenties, discovering not only Randy Newman and John Prine but magically, life-changingly (well, in a songwriting kind of way, which is life for those who do it) Fred Eaglesmith.

In any case, Nashville musician Sam Lewis somehow managed to mine a life history that was at times too tame, rife with pain, and a soul-twisting drain to create songs that strike against the mundane, especially when he effortlessly switches from roots music that could have been written in Guy Clark’s shed to beefy, soul-strutting R&B that could be cheekily blasted from any radio within earshot of Berry Gordy’s office. His melted-chocolate straddles these styles with ease.

“I’m a public servant,” says Lewis from the Vancouver room he’s using as a temporary home base for his Canadian tour (yes, he loves it and finds it amazing and absolutely beautiful and will be returning) and from where he can come and go from gigs in Bella Coola, Winnipeg, Calgary, and beyond. “I serve people; I put into songs the things that people can’t say, but they feel.”

Lewis started writing songs after he started working for Walmart in North Carolina on the floor in theft prevention when he was 21. He later transferred to Knoxville, Tennessee, and was still working there when he settled in Nashville as a songwriter. By then he’d moved to the optical department, where a small and compassionate team worked their schedules around his growing calendar of tours. He stayed with the company for about 10 years because he needed the health benefits, and only left when they wouldn’t grant a short leave to tour Great Britain.

Friends had encouraged him to share his songs live. “I didn’t really have a lot but I just got addicted to (songwriting.) I was (in my) early twenties — you’re trying to not make too many big, insane, terrible decisions, and also trying to figure out who the hell you are.

“And so, yeah, I probably could have used a therapist, and instead I started writing what little I knew and really became addicted to it, and was comfortable enough and brave enough to share what little I knew with people.”

This journey eventually lead him to release several albums, including 2018’s  Loversity (a word that popped into his head when he was driving down the road in the wee hours and saw the end part of a sign on a building: “ersity”), an album which expressed his growing sense of disdain for injustice and political manipulation. The word slipped into a composition he’d already started, which was different for him as his words usually come first and the music comes courting after them.

“I wrote Loversity and my definition of it is love without boundaries, not without rules. I believe that regardless of who or what you believe in, we’re all in this never ending line of existence and we’re either running towards something or running away from something, but we spend a lot of time waiting for whatever it is we think we want or we are entitled to.  And my question is what more can you do while you’re waiting? There’s someone that’s always gonna be behind you or in front of you. So that’s basically it.”

It’s a perspective that would have been helpful back in Hillsville (“about as rural a name as can possibly be”) when he was 15 and his parents settled there and stayed to mend their fences with each other, mostly because his mom’s twin sister lived there. And while he’d already moved 19 times in his short life, this one was the toughest at first.

“It put me in a very small school system at that time. It really took me a long time to get friends. The culture there was not as inviting as you think it would be, but, again, no harm, no foul to kids going through the same shit I’m going through. All the changes.

“(It was) very rural, you wouldn’t just go down the street and hang out with friends and ride bikes. Everybody lived out of town. They lived on these farms and in different villages and stuff. It was the county that had one elementary, one middle school, and one high school.”

In spite of this, Lewis says the place is now as much of a home as he’s ever had.

“Over time I’ve developed a real love for not so much the conservative narrative or the overt racist narrative there, but just the beauty and how people farm. There’s a lot of trade and barter. It’s quite socialist but they would never think it. It’s really funny. It’s like trying to teach a five year old how to share, and they’re not really into it, but then they happen to share everything.

“Well, you’re naturally doing that but you don’t want to do it when asked, ‘OK, whatever, you guys just keep on doing whatever you’re doing,’ ” he says, laughing.

While he states that his favourite songwriters are the ones where poetry meets song, one of his favourites, Eaglesmith, dwells where song meets itself. “(He’s) one of the best songwriters living. I stumbled upon him in my early twenties and he helped get me away from the whole Bob Dylan thing where things had to have multiple meanings, and had to be layered and all that. I fell in love with how much he broke things down and gave you a lot less but you left with more.”

But even for the Prines, Newmans and Eaglesmiths of the world, it’s still about the song. “There’s really nothing new. It’s a really tough trade to be in. I feel like everything honestly has already been said, many different times in many different ways. It takes time to form some kind of original narrative and that’s all I’m really working towards.”

And in working towards it, Lewis has created a style with varied elements that somehow is unmistakably his. It is a place few musicians are able to find. “I like good songs. I was doing an exercise a few years ago and I love those kind of songs (where) there’s patterns that feel like it makes sense. You know, when you eat something and you can go on and on as to why you like it but can’t explain why.

“I’ve always felt that way about rhythm and blues and soul and funk. (They) strike a nerve where everything just makes sense. Anyway, I started doing an exercise a few years ago where I was taking traditional country songs, like Hank Williams songs or Willie Nelson songs, and I would just kinda shift them and turn them around and put a backbeat in them. Then the next thing you know it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s an R&B song now!’ That’s the beautiful thing about good songs — you should be able to play them different ways.

“I love all types of different music. My human metronome is definitely steeped in more of a backbeat, R&B type of feel.”

Sam Lewis plays at the Calgary Folk Festival on Saturday, July 27 and Sunday, July 28. For more information, go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.