Sam Amidon’s strength lies in his interpretive imagination, typically revisiting traditional roots and folk music but occasionally digging up, say, an R. Kelly nugget. His reinventions have ranged from spare and stripped-down to more complex and fuller, as developed on 2010’s I See the Sign. His latest work, Bright Sunny South, ostensibly works as a return to a simpler sound, but it’s simpler only through the lens of a greater maturity, with Amidon’s ability to stay out of a song’s way as well as to shove his way into something more exploratory being a major asset.
“He’s Taken My Feet” seems likely to get the most attention here. The song originated as a nineteenth-century spiritual hymn and saw a revival a few years ago with Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt’s version. Amidon starts with a light, airy arrangement (reminding us why his voice gets compared to Will Oldham’s), but he builds the basic song over the course of four and a half minutes. Kenny Wheeler’s trumpet adds to the sound and on the next go-round we’re introduced to some blips and slight dissonance. By the end of the track, Amidon’s deliberately pulling the wheels off in a free jazz-y breakdown that sounds much more natural than might be expected.
It’s an odd way of returning to a simpler album, but it’s not indicative of Amidon’s work across the disc. The preceding track, a cover of Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend”, stays much closer to the original, with Amidon capturing the essence of the song and, if doing anything to it, embedding it in the folk tradition. His take on Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” works less well. Amidon turns the song into a slow, moody lament. It feels a bit gimmicky, largely because the song doesn’t carry enough weight in this arrangement and there’s no sort of lyrical/musical juxtaposition to set it off as wry.
The rest of the album doesn’t suffer from any such missteps. “I Wish I Wish” offers a bright, jazzy approach to a song that resists depression, pushing aside death to look forward to something more. The guitar-and-trumpet pairing realizes the vision clearly. The opening title track faces war bravely, and Amidon’s picked guitar supports a quiet confidence; his vocal delivery characterizes the singer not as naïve in his mission but as prepared for the likelihood of death, gaining strength from a transcendent knowledge that will get him to his resting place on a mountaintop.
That sort of number could be bleak, but Amidon knows how to pull the character out of it. There’s a sort of calm persistence throughout the album, and the direct performance of sacred hymn number “Weeping Mary” (recorded by his parents about 35 years ago) makes a fitting conclusion to the album. The song has fuller orchestration than many of the album’s tracks, but it leaves plenty of space, a testament not only of Amidon’s musicality but also of his and Thomas Bartlett’s (Doveman’s) production. The track isn’t as simple as it seems, yet it works nicely as just-a-folk-song, the sort of approach that Amidon’s been refining for a decade now. Bright Sunny South is full of these unhurried, easy moments, and succeeds because of it.