Samantha Fish – Belle Of The West
Ruf Records RUF 1248
11 songs – 47 minutes
A 2018 Blues Music Association award winner for Contemporary Female Artist Of The Year, Samantha Fish is no stranger to expanding the boundaries and testing new musical styles, as witnessed by her 2017 release, Chills & Fever.
On that album, her songwriting talents took a backseat. She blended a collection of fairly obscure pop and soul covers into a package that cut new territory as they put her prodigious vocal talents on display for the world to hear after being obscured by the six-string blues-rock pyrotechnics that dominated since her first CD in 2009. Belle Of The West continues her progression and, not surprisingly, takes a different path altogether.
This one reunites Samantha with producer and Hill Country superstar Luther Dickinson, who was at the controls for her 2015 album, Wild At Heart, which transitioned her closer to the blues mainstream. Consisting of eight sparkling originals and three covers, Belle Of The West delves into the songster tradition as Fish offers up a collection of songs that deliver the feel of her native Midwest and the Old West.
“It’s a storytelling record…it’s very personal,” Fish states. “I really focused…on bringing another dimension to what I do. I wasn’t interested in shredding on guitar, although we ended up with a few heavier tracks. I love Mississippi blues. There’s something very soulful and very real about that style of music. This was a chance to immerse myself in that.”
Recorded at Zebra Ranch Studio in Independence, Miss., the workshop founded by Luther’s late father, Jim, with Samantha backed by some of the Hill Country’s finest musicians, the effort pays off to the max. Dickinson’s on guitar and mandolin with Lightnin’ Malcolm on six-string and harmonica, former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus on Fender Rhodes and harp, Lillie Mae Rische on violin, Amy LeVere on upright bass, and Tikyra Jackson and Trina Raimey on drums. Several of the musicians contribute backing vocals including Sharde Thomas, who also adds fife and percussion.
The sound is stripped down and barebones with minimal use of effects. If you close your eyes, it delivers the feel of an intimate jam session around a campfire on a clear, starry night, an effect that’s amplified by the inclusion of some conversations among the musicians between tracks.
The stop-time opener, “American Dream,” kicks off with a drumbeat before a rhythmic guitar pattern’s aided by Sharde’s fife. Despite the political turmoil roiling the U.S. today, this one signs to the long history of opportunities we enjoy in the Land Of The Free and Home Of The Brave. Samantha’s vocals glide above the rich instrumental tapestry, which is always powerful, but never diminishes her verbal message.
Honey-sweet harmonies belie a dark message for the ballad “Blood In The Water,” which features Lillie Mae’s fiddle, and describes the end of a relationship. Up next, the medium-paced shuffle “Need You More” comes across with back country feel as Fish comes to the painful realization that she’s “mistaken my big talk for the truth,” while “Cowtown” continues the theme and features some tasty single-note picking as it comes across with a traditional Southern rock feel.
The medium tempo “Daughters” describes a broken family atop a funky beat. It’s followed by “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a lust-filled burner that gives Samantha space to stretch her soulful vocals. The title tune, “Belle Of The West,” was penned by Mathus. It’s perfect for dancing the two-step in an out-of-the-way roadhouse somewhere along Old Route 66.
The R.L. Burnside Hill Country classic, “Poor Black Mattie,” swings from the jump as it features Lightnin’ Malcolm in a vocal duet before the bluesy “No Angels” simmers and smokes as it describes a place where the devil obviously rules. Penned by Lillie Mae, who doubles Samantha’s vocals, the ballad “Nearing Home” is a world weary, country tinged ballad that leads perfectly into the uptempo closer, “Gone For Good,” on which Samantha rips and runs on slide guitar.
If you’ve been a Fish fan for a long time, Belle Of The West might surprise you because of its different feel. But don’t hesitate to pick it up. It’s definitely a winner.