Sam Hill – Haunted by Monroe
Today’s bluegrass seems to be performed largely by instrument contest winners — young men who locked themselves in their rooms at age 12 to practice and who forgot to come out and have a life. So longtime bluegrass fans welcome bands that value the music above the picking, bands that know bluegrass is more about life than about how many notes can be played in a measure.
Portland band Sam Hill has always been about the music, not about hot licks. The release of its third CD, Haunted By A Memory, shows that fine instrumental technique can enhance good songwriting without overpowering it.
When Sam Hill began performing eight years ago, listeners were impressed with the traditional sounding originals written by mandolinist Jeff Smith. Though conforming to bluegrass conventions, Smith’s songs avoid the bland sameness of many neotraditional numbers.
“It’s the Bill Monroe influence,” Smith said, “the Monroe of the late ’50s.” Lead singer Doug Sammons’ preferences also run to the bluesy side of bluegrass. The few covers on Sam Hill CDs are likely to be Carter Stanley heartbreakers.
Last year, Laurie Lewis recorded Smith’s “Hard Luck & Trouble”, the title track to Sam Hill’s second CD. This followed Smith’s recording sessions with mandolin madman Frank Wakefield, an experience that strengthened Smith’s instrumental skills and comfort with recording.
While Sam Hill’s West Coast popularity grew, the changes inevitable in a part-time band hit the ensemble hard. Two of the four founding members left within a short time of each other.
With the loss of two key personalities and close friends (Smith played in a high school band with departing banjo player Dave Chalupsky, and the two are married to sisters), the band “felt slammed,” Sammons said. Not the least of their problems was the small pool of qualified, compatible instrumentalists in the Northwest bluegrass scene.
But fiddler Pat Kramer was ready to come out of musical retirement, emerging with his classic bluegrass voice intact and a stash of original music. And Peter Schwimmer, a bluegrass utility infielder, showed up with his banjo. Schwimmer has two solo CDs on which he plays all the instruments in a virtual five-piece ensemble.
With four members contributing originals, plus Dee Ann Davidshofer’s solid bass playing and Schwimmer’s fastidious ear and adventurous banjo, Sam Hill stretched on its third CD. But the band is pleased with the effect, convinced the music holds its own, almost in spite of the technical improvements.
Sammons said, “It feels like we mean it when we play. Even when we do a cover — that’s us. The only way we can do someone else’s song is to make it our own.”