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The literate vitality of Samantha Crain’s music

By Andy Jones | The Taos News |  January 14th, 2016

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Samantha Crain’s latest album, “Under Branch & Thorn & Tree,” was named one of the top 10 albums of 2015 by NPR’s “Folk Alley” and is the songwriter’s fifth album in only six years. The folk and Americana songwriter will be making the only New Mexico stop on her current tour tonight (Jan. 14) at Taos Mesa Brewing.

Crain, however, isn’t one of these songwriters who values quantity over quality. She’s a thoughtful, honest and literary writer, as well as a talented singer and musician (guitar and piano). Her Taos Mesa Brewing performance will be of the solo variety, just one woman, her voice, a piano and/or guitar.

“Before I started writing songs, I wrote short stories,” Crain explains from the road via email. She says some of her favorite authors include short story legend Breece D’J Pancake, former Taos resident D.H. Lawrence, poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry Miller (ever the experimentalist) and American literary legends Flannery O’Connor and Walt Whitman.

Musically, she says she leans on artists like Neil Young, Jason Molina, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday. And while these influences do bleed through into Crain’s songs, it’s obvious where her real inspiration comes from.

“Everything,” she writes. “Every event, person, image, sound or word. They all have the potential to be an inspiration.”

Crain’s songs tend to be in the tried-and-true story narrative, with solid writing and vivid imagery. It doesn’t mean the stories themselves are retreads. Lines like, “My neighbor died on a Sunday, 35 years old, never asked for sugar, never said hello” (“You Or Mystery”) and “Counting boxes on the floor, that we’ve marked with my name and yours” (“Moving Day”) have a way of setting the scene and putting you in a certain place and time, even if you’ve never had a sullen neighbor die or had to split up your possessions with an ex.

Musically, Crain is not afraid to mix it up either. The new album, like its critically lauded predecessor “Kid Face,” was produced and mixed by John Vanderslice, who has worked with artists such as The Mountain Goats and Spoon.

“He is a genius,” Crain writes. “The most pure musician I’ve ever met. He is very experimental in the studio, but also very efficient, which is literally the best thing you could hope for in a studio setting.

“He knows how to get good sounds out of people and instruments and also encourages an entirely creative space. He is somehow deeply rooted in both fantasy and reality.”

Crain grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, a place she writes that is “probably not any different than growing up in any other small town between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.”

That said, Oklahoma and Shawnee’s Native community is strong, and Crain’s Choctaw heritage allowed her to at least have a culturally unique experience growing up.

“We went to powwows, we went to dances and I learned some basic language and Choctaw hymns,” she writes. “The community was very apparent and alive, as my family lived down in Clayton, Oklahoma, which is right in the heart of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.”

Now living in Norman, Oklahoma, Crain writes that one of the benefits of being a songwriter on the road is the opportunities to learn what’s special about other places. It’s one of the reasons she is excited to hit Taos on this tour.

“Thousands of communities all over this country have deeply special connections to their heritage as well,” she writes. “I personally don’t know enough about Taos to have a fully formed opinion, but that’s why I tour … so I can learn about places and people.”

The show starts at 8 p.m., and the cover charge is $5. Taos Mesa Brewing is located at 20 ABC Mesa Rd., off U.S. 64 west.

To learn more about Crain and to hear some songs, visit samanthacrain.com. Her most recent album, as well as some of her older releases, are also available on Spotify.

  • Posted on January 15