Premier Guitar – Samantha Fish: From Cowtown to Coldwater

Somewhere on a two-lane blacktop between Detroit and Indianapolis, Samantha Fish is cruising along with her band, thoroughly in her element as she looks ahead to her next gig. “On the road, always!” she says over the crackle of her cell phone. “But yeah, that’s why we do this: Music is the universal language that we all speak and can understand, and there’s something people need in that, you know?”

She’s just 28, but after a decade of playing in front of all kinds of crowds, from the smallest clubs to the biggest festivals, Fish radiates an upbeat worldliness that has seeped into her music—a rangy mix of garage rock, blues, country and soul. Along the way, she’s opened for Buddy Guy at his Legends club in Chicago, shared bills with Johnny Winter, George Thorogood, Corey Harris, and Tab Benoit, and garnered praise from The New York Times as “an impressive blues guitarist who sings with sweet power.” It’s been quite a journey from her hometown in Kansas City, Missouri, where she started out jamming on drums with her father, her uncles, and their friends before switching to guitar when she was in her mid-teens.

“My father played guitar,” she says, “and it’s funny because the style of music would change based on whoever was over at the house. We listened to the radio growing up, so there was all this rock ’n’ roll, and if his brothers were over, they’d be playing guitar to Black Sabbath or Black Label Society—some kind of metal. And then some friends might play bluegrass or West Coast swing or country music—Americana, songwriter-type stuff. And my mom sang in church, so you can see how the lines are connected.”

Primarily self-taught, she picked up everything she could from her idols—Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, Angus Young, Slash, the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell—before she discovered the North Mississippi hill country blues sound of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and the Fat Possum label. At 17, she started hanging around Knuckleheads, the hottest blues-country saloon in Kansas City, and eventually drew the attention of owner Frank Hicks, who got her time onstage and the chance to cut her teeth with a slew of different blues and roots artists, including Benoit and Michael Burks. In 2010, on the recommendation of St. Louis blues guitarslinger Mike Zito, she landed a deal with the late Luther Allison’s label Ruf Records (founded in 1994 by Allison’s manager, Thomas Ruf), and she’s been making her mark ever since.

Belle of the West is Fish’s latest album, with a history of its own. Recorded near the end of 2015, the sessions were produced by the North Mississippi AllStars’ Luther Dickinson at his father Jim Dickinson’s famed Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. At first, Fish and Dickinson had conceived of a more acoustic-based follow-up to 2015’s Wild Heart, which they’d also worked on together in the fall of 2014. But as more guest musicians came into the fold—including singer and fiddle player Lillie Mae, known to many for her high-profile stint in Jack White’s Lazaretto band, as well as Mississippi roots guitarists Lightnin’ Malcolm and Jimbo Mathus—the album took on a larger scope. [See sidebar, “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch.”]

During the session, with plenty of encouragement from Dickinson, Fish made some discoveries while playing hollowbody guitars—particularly the Gibson ES-390. The fat, feedback-hugging tone is a departure from the thinline Tele-style sound she gets with her custom Delaney “Fish-o-caster,” and the new tonal direction inspired her to dig deeper into the underlying melodies of the songs before she tracked her solos.

You can hear the results in her gritty phrasing and tasteful hybrid picking near the end of the moody, soul-kissed standout “Don’t Say You Love Me,” or in the jazzy licks she throws down on the Mathus-penned title track. Occasionally, and especially live, there are strong nods to Jimi Hendrix, too, in her mids-heavy sound, which she occasionally colors with a Micro POG to create Octavia-inspired colors. And on her cigar box and oil can guitars, Fish’s raw slide tone is evocative of the howling juke joint sound of Burnside.
“You know, we went into the studio with the best intentions of making an acoustic record,” Fish says with a laugh, “but I’ve got Luther in there with me, and we’re both guitar players, so we ended up with something a little heavier, and I’m glad we did. He introduced me to hollowbody guitars and the different feedback you can get when you ring out certain notes, and that really influenced my solos a lot. So it’s a semi-acoustic record—that’s the term we finally landed on when it was all said and done.”

As luck would have it, Belle of the West was tracked quickly—often just first or second takes with the full band, which also features Amy LaVere on upright bass and Tikyra “TK” Jackson (of Southern Avenue) on drums, playing live on the floor. But almost as soon as the album was mixed, Fish sensed the urge to get another project out of her system.

“As a little time passed, I felt like we needed something higher octane to put out beforehand,” she says. She hooked up with Detroit-based producer Bobby Harlow to tap into the no-frills, garage-rock spirit that inspired her as a kid. “That’s how the Chills & Fever concept was formed. We recorded with members of the Detroit Cobras, brought in a horn section from New Orleans, and put together this really high-energy big band to do soul and rock ’n roll covers from the ’50s and ’60s.” When stacked against Belle of the West’s rootsy, soulful sound, Chills & Fever, which was released in March 2017, sounds unusually punked-out and jagged. “I know they’re dramatically different,” Fish explains, “but that was the idea. It’s two different concepts, Detroit and Mississippi, but it made sense to put out these two albums in one year for just that reason—because they’re such concept records.”

Having recently relocated to New Orleans, Fish is poised to expand her musical horizons even further, but she still feels the pull of the Mississippi blues, no matter where she calls home. “To me, it’s the core of rock ’n’ roll music. It’s this unpolished, guttural, raw sound that people seem to gravitate to over and over again. It just gets redone and modified. It’s weird how we kind of remove all the slickness every few years, and come back to this real, almost aggressive, thing. I think it’s just because that’s where our hearts are, you know? That authenticity resonates with people.”

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