Those first few shimmering notes on Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose’s album Spark in Your Smile are an invitation: Soon, you’ll find yourself in a musical universe that ebbs, flows, and gently rocks with undulating rhythms that can at times soften the blow of his perceptive lyrics. While this is Armstrong-Zickefoose’s debut album, he’s performed with Meadow Mountain, Masontown, Grace Clark Band, David Burchfield, and Ben Sollee.
Armstrong-Zickefoose grew up playing bluegrass with his family in Colorado, but expanded his horizons as a banjo student at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where he studied the instrument’s history in the university’s Balkan/Middle-Eastern Music Ensemble. He has also studied traditional Ugandan music and West African drumming, earning him an invitation to play with The Spirit of Uganda, an international touring group of traditional Ugandan music and dance.
Armstrong-Zickefoose plays with the boundaries of the many musical cultures he’s steeped himself in. Arresting drum lines and hypnotic rhythms speak to his intimacy with Ugandan music, leveraging the roots of bluegrass into a sound that’s as sweet as it is propulsive.
The leadoff track on Spark in Your Smile, “Heart of Mine” is beautiful in its yearning; as it unfurls with glimmerings of possibility, Armstrong-Zickefoose recounts with wistfulness his difficulties with finding his place in the LGBTQ+ community when he first came out. Gentle and admonishing, he recalls wanting to fit in with his new community while yearning to stand outside those expectations and stay true to himself. For anyone who’s traversed that particular passage, the song is a nostalgic reminder of learning how to please yourself before you can please others.
Armstrong-Zickefoose’s depiction of his childhood home in “Yellow House” showcases his talents as a lyricist. With a careful eye to detail, he addresses the domicile, cataloging his favorite memories as he wonders how things will change while he travels. The song takes on a sharper poignancy as many of us are resuming socializing and work after a year away, taking comfort in what was once routine, but navigating the irrevocable changes in our lives.
It wouldn’t be a bluegrass album without some instrumental pieces, of course, and Armstrong-Zickefoose showcases his chops in traditionally arranged pieces like “Virginia Pup.” But songs like “Mona,” where we can more easily hear all of Armstrong-Zickefoose’s influences, are the true highlights of the album. An agile instrumental piece with an insistent urgency, the band connects with a force that can best be described, if wanly, as “love.”
In Spark in Your Smile, Armstrong-Zickefoose points to a new path for traditional string music: one that’s rooted in its past. By exploring all the winding forks these musical pathways lead him down, Armstrong-Zickefoose has unified them all with his generosity of spirit.