The hoodoo factor in Samuel James’ music is strong. He is very connected to the eerie, mythical nature of early 20th-century country blues, his music conjures up images of Ol’ Scratch in his city-slicker high-button shoes, box-back coat, checkered pants, and Stetson, sipping iced tea and picking his guitar on the porch. Just who would tune whose guitar at the crossroads?
James, whose Kurt Cobain-ish singing voice teeters on the edge of franticness, is one of a growing number of young African-Americans now embracing the blues after times when some saw that music as a painful reminder of America’s too-recent past. On Songs Famed for Sorrow And Joy he forges the history of music and culture into a remarkable album. James’ prowess at all sorts of guitar playing – from fingerpicking to gutsy, powerful slide – is stunning. He even incorporates banjo – which was once more a part of blues music as the guitar – into his one-man acoustic tour de force. An intelligent, imaginative writer with an ear for melody, James writes with wit and color; his sometimes chilling, sometimes amusing narratives of “One-Eyed Kate,” “Big Black Ben,” and “Ol’ Willie Chan” are laid over astounding fretwork. There’s force and confidence in his playing; a surety in the blues that can’t possibly come from someone only a few years out of high school; and from Maine, no less! But it does. Samuel James is already a great player; with time he may show himself to be one of the best since they stopped making 78s.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’08 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.