Saluting Roots: An Interview With Sam Phelps
Image by Courtney Sultan
Growing up in Somerset, Kentucky, there wasn't an awful lot a boy could get up to on account of its 'dry county' status. No alcohol could be sniffed at legally; singer-songwriter Sam Phelps turned to a legal hallucinogenic if you will: music. "My father was always playing artists like Steve Earl and Tony Rice, so that's how I got into it," he informs me as we converse about his essence, Brit to Yank. "My dad didn't play an instrument, but I credit him with teaching me how to really listen and pick up on the little nuances you hear in certain songs.
"Once I realised that guitar practice was an acceptable excuse to get out of helping him with his business, I took full advantage of it," he laughs heartily." Reaching 17, he was itching to get out of Kentucky, throwing everything in a backpack and succumbing to where the wind swept him. "I spent some time in Cincinnati and Austin, but there was always this strong pull towards New York. So when a friend presented me with the opportunity to move to Brooklyn a few years ago, I jumped on it faster than a pony in a western and haven't looked back!"
Bluegrass, country and classic rock was the only "acceptable" music in the lad's childhood, but, as he matured, folk crept in as did older southern rock and classic country with regard for luminaries like Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, and The Rolling Stones. "I actually feel like it's come full circle now. Cause for many years, I pretty much left my country roots in the dust while playing in a dance-rock band, which is just about as far from country music as you can get!"
"I think I was trying to run away from the sound that was kind of the soundtrack to my (not so good) childhood. But since recently stepping out as a solo performer and really getting into songwriting, I've revisited a lot of those classic albums, and they have been a huge source of inspiration." Sam digested that, no matter what, it is a part of his being and heritage; he is only just now starting to be at one with such. "I feel like I found my voice and direction."
Image by Courtney Sultan
"I remember being four years old and pretending a broomstick was a guitar, and just feeling like "this is the best thing ever!" he chuckles. "Once I got a real guitar when I was 13 for my birthday, I didn't care about anything else...making music was all I wanted to do. The entertainer was involved one way or another, but never as a solo artist or writer."It wasn't until a friend suggested I try writing my own songs that the seed was planted."
Phelps takes a breath to appreciate that same pal with gratitude, but enlightens me with the news that they unfortunately fell out and are not in touch anymore. "That situation is what inspired my song, "Talking To A Friend". It was the first time I wrote a song where I couldn't get the words down on paper fast enough, it just flowed out of me, and it was really cathartic. That was when I realised this is what I need to keep doing".
Described as a blend of his true passions, his sound jar is labelled Americana Folk if pressed. Sam reminisces about two tracks of his that hold extensive meaning and delicate flashbacks: "I Can't Sing"- I was listening to a lot of classic country at the time I wrote it, while also really getting into newer artists like Justin Townes Earle and Father John Misty. I tried to figure out my direction and what I have to offer musically." A moment of clarity connected the dots:"I can sing about all these same things that they do, except for momma. And "I Can't Sing" was born."
"Talking To A friend"- As I mentioned earlier, this song is about the difficulty I had ending a close friendship with the person who told me I should start doing my own music; I am honestly not sure where I would be today without her advice and early encouragement. I could have written ten verses to that song, I think!"
Second EP Talking To A Friend arrived on the scene three weeks with the added frustration of no promotional tour to spread the vibrations due to Covid and the toll it inevitably caused. "For now, I am using this time to be more active on Instagram and really connect with fans there. And although I am not a big tech person, it's been fun and has led to some cool partnerships. It's also opened up doors for me to perform "virtually" in places I would have never anticipated."
Sealing our chat, Sam is optimistic about his current destination."Recently, I did a live stream to music fans in Honolulu and was interviewed and got to perform for a London based podcast. And now getting to chat with you; it's all very cool, so I want to keep at it. I'm planning to post a series of Made for Instagram videos over the next few months with the help of my photographer friend Courtney Sultan. I am also in the process of writing material for my next album, which I hope to release soon!"
Article by Beverley Knight