m e r c y

 

photo s.baker

 One of the 50 Essential Texas Albums-    Texas Music Magazine

 

by Sam Baker-1-59_Snapseed

 

Buy

Lyrics

004b

Press

MOJO

“a deceptive simplicity and an insouciance
that at times recall John Prine”

The 60 Best Albums of 2006
by Geoffrey Himes

Number 1.
Sam Baker: mercy.  A cross between early
John Prine and prime Townes Van Zandt.

Texas Music Magazine

September 2006

By Geoffrey Himes

Producer Gurf Morlix gets a lot of demos from singer-songwriters. Mountains of demos. So when he
stood on the back stairs at Antone’s between sets and told me that he had just discovered the best
songwriter he’d heard in years—a songwriter as good as his former and current clients Lucinda
Williams, Mary Gauthier and Ray Wylie Hubbard—I paid attention. When he told me he had nothing to
do with the songwriter’s one and only album, I paid closer attention. Go to sambakermusic.com, he said;
you won’t be sorry. I did and I wasn’t.
The CD arrived in the mail with the words Sam Baker and “Mercy” on a white frame around a black-and-
white photo of a baby-boomer with chiseled features, tousled brown hair and a black turtleneck. The
fourth song, “Thursday,” begins with a simply picked acoustic-guitar figure, but an eerie pedal steel
guitar note, courtesy of Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly, hovers overhead like something bad about to happen,
like the threat of rain from the east. Responding to that threat is the anxiety of Tim Lorsch’s octave violin
and Ron DeLaVega’s cello.
When Baker’s voice finally enters, it’s a sandpaper drawl reminiscent of John Prine’s. In short, compact
lines, he sketches a picture of a young woman in a second-hand car, her two babies in car seats, a
plastic case of huggies in the front and the father far behind. She pulls up to the drive-through window at
a Wendy’s in Waco; the older child asks, “Daddy gone?” It’s raining now. The mother cries; the babies
cry, and the teenager in the window asks, “M’am, is something wrong?”
This is the point in the song where you want something good to happen to this poor woman. You want
the irresponsible father to show up and do the right thing; you want a kindly stranger to take her by the
hand and find her a job and nice home; you want a fairy godmother to flutter down from the sky and
wave her wand. You want it as a listener; you’d want it if you were the songwriter. But Baker
stubbornly refuses that temptation. He has his protagonist pull over in the Wendy’s parking lot, collect
herself, calm her kids, eat her French fries and get back on I-65 towards nothing in particular in San
Antonio. You realize this single mother is going to struggle through days like this for years and years to
come, and the realization is devastating. “It’s like a country song,” Baker sings, “but it feels a lot sadder
than what the radio plays.”
The whole album is like that. An emotional weather is established by the instruments. Baker’s
characters—a newly widowed man, an aging party girl, a beer drinker watching the TV news in his
underwear, a construction worker who rolls his pick-up—are evoked so economically, so vividly that we
ache to keep them from the disappointment and doom headed their way. But Baker refuses to let wishful
thinking distort his pictures of the way things are. Musicians aren’t the most reliable critics—they’re too
protective of their friends—but Morlix was right about Baker. He’s a major talent, too important to wait
around for a second album before spreading the news. Connoisseurs of Texas songwriting need to know
about this Austin resident now. We need to find out how he resisted the temptation to make things better
for his characters—or to at least add a moral lesson for his listeners. Where did he get the discipline to
be so spare in his language and so unsparing in his attitude?
“In popular art,” he ventures, “there is an expectation of magical resolve, where happy-ever-after is
mandatory. I think happy-ever-after is a distinct possibility, but in my world, happy-ever-after involves a
fair amount of bumps and bruises. That doesn’t mean it’s unavailable; it just means that it’s not magical.
It’s a practical matter. At this phase of my writing life, I like the songs to stay in line with what I can
see, with how I see ordinary people resolve things, which is usually in ordinary ways. In ‘Thursday,’ for
instance, the babies stop crying, she stops crying, she starts up the car and they take off.
“It’s a jolt of reality when someone can see into their own life and see the profound difference between
that life and what they hear of others on the radio or TV. The woman in ‘Thursday’ finds herself in her
own song and it’s more compelling than what she hears on the radio. It’s the nature of us as people.
Because it’s so easy to stay in the world of popular culture we all sometimes stay outside ourselves so
long that it’s hard to come back and reside in our own small worlds.”
“Thursday” is a country song, even if it feels a lot sadder than what the radio plays. It’s a country song
because Baker’s baritone echoes Itasca, his small hometown between Dallas and Waco. It’s a country
song because the arrangement is built around acoustic guitar, fiddle and pedal steel guitar. It’s a country
song because it’s firmly in the tradition of Texas singer-songwriters such as Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett,
Townes Van Zandt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
“I’m just one tiny, dim thread in that great, colorful fabric,” Baker, 52, insists. “I’m of that world, of
those stories and of those people. When I write, it works best when I write about what I know, just as it
did for Townes and Guy. We’re all writing about the same trees and rocks and the same people
struggling. I’m responding to the same sort of things they responded to, the way the prairie lays out, the
way the wind comes off the Gulf Coast. If you all look at the same tree, there’s bound to be some
similarity.
“Part of what Townes and Guy taught me was that to look around and see what’s in the yard is what
gives songs their strength. They both kept their vision pretty close to home; I don’t think they ever
looked over to India or Germany for inspiration—they didn’t even look over to Arkansas. If they wrote a
bout a leaf falling from a tree, it was probably a tree near their house, and I thought that was a valuable
lesson.”
Baker had always fooled around on guitar, but for years he never took it seriously. Instead, after
graduating from North Texas State, he worked as a bank examiner in Midland and Odessa and El Paso.
Tiring of the nine-to-five life, he dropped out to run river rafts out of Terlingua and to work as a
carpenter in the off-season. That gave him lots of time to travel, and in 1986 when a friend asked if he
wanted to come along on a trip to the Peruvian mountains, Baker said sure. After hiking ice-capped
ridges for six days, they wanted to see Machu Picchu and flew into Cuzco to catch the train.
“There was a heavy military presence in Cuzco,” Baker remembers. “The newspapers were full of stories
about a prison riot, and the Shining Path was attacking villages in the mountains. The government had
used some heavy-handed tactics, so the country was pretty unsettled. But everything seemed under
control in Cuzco. I was sitting on the aisle next to a German kid across from his mother and father. I
paid no attention to the red backpack above his mother’s head on the luggage rack.” The train was still
in the station when the dynamite in that backpack exploded. The German kid and his parents were killed
instantly; five more people died immediately and two more died later from their injuries. It was one of the
Shining Path’s first urban attacks.
“I had a severed artery,” Baker says matter-of-factly 20 years later. “First there was a panic, because the
pressure wave of the blast knocked all the air out of my lungs. You take breathing for granted, but I
couldn’t get my lungs to reinflate for a second or two. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was put instantly in a
different space, a place of dying. I was in Cuzco for a while, and then I was airlifted to Houston. It didn’
t look good; I had gangrene and renal failure.”
If this were a country song that the radio would play, Baker’s near-death experience would have brought
him closer to God, closer to a good woman, closer to a dream or closer to something. On the two songs
that Baker actually wrote about the experience—“Steel” and “Angels”—things aren’t that simple.
“Everyone is a saint,” he sings on “Angels,” but he adds that everyone is also “a bastard [and] a whore.”
There’s no grand design, he implies on “Steel”; you can’t predict the randomness of the world, “’cause
trains explode; steel flies. The sisters ring the Catholic bells; smoke rises through a hole in the roof.” Yes,
there are dreams, he acknowledges, but those dreams can belong to the Shining Path as easily as they
belong to Martin Luther King. As he sings on “Angels,” “Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s
dream.”
“For a while,” he admits, “I was under a fight-or-flight reflex. I felt every room I walked in, every car I
rode in, every plane I flew in, was going to blow up. I thought every moment could, faster than I could
blink my eyes, change to me dying. But once that response began to subside, another view that had been
there all along emerged. Because you know that it can all be taken away in an instant, you embrace
what’s here all the more intensely. I realized that I was in extra innings, that every day, every minute is a
gift. Every cup of coffee, every cheeseburger.”
In an effort to make sense of it all, he turned to fiction. He went back to work as a bank examiner and
wrote short stories in his spare time. He wrote and wrote and got better and better, but he never reached
the point of clarity he desired. Then, in 1998, his sister Chris Baker-Davies released an album, “Southern
Wind,” that included a few of the songs that Baker had tossed off during his fiction years. Hearing them
sung by someone else with a band, he realized that songwriting might provide the economy and focus he
hadn’t found in fiction. So he began writing the songs that became “Mercy.” “The editing part of the
short fiction helped the songwriting,” he claims, “because I had learned how to take something that
seemed alright and tear it up into small pieces of confetti, let them swirl around for a while and see
where they land. If I can’t do that, I can’t rewrite, and I think rewriting is God. I felt I was in a box
crowded with words, and you have to throw some words overboard so you have room for new stuff. I
don’t think I could have gone forward unless I could let some of it out.”
The results were some of the best songs to ever come out of Texas, even if no one heard them other
than a handful of Baker’s pals and a few unwary listeners at a roadhouse on the Llano River. In 2003,
though, Baker opened for Walt Wilkins, a Texas native now recording and producing in Nashville, at a
bed and breakfast in Llano. Wilkins immediately recognized the quality of the songs and told Baker, “I
know what you should sound like.” That appealed to Baker, who didn’t, and they made plans to record
an album in Nashville.
Wilkins and his co-producer Tim Lorsch set up a chair, two mics and a candle in the studio and had
Baker sing the songs as he normally did them. Once they had acceptable takes, the producers started
adding layers of pedal steel, cello and violin until the arrangements resembled the chamber-folk-rock of
Alejandro Escovedo. Jessi Colter, Joy Lynn White, Kevin Welch and Chris Baker-Davies added harmony
vocals. Then Baker released “Mercy” in 2004 on his own label with no publicist or radio promotion. Like
most self-released albums, it fell like a tree in a forest where no one could hear it.
But slowly, very slowly, people began to discover it. When Baker opened for Morlix, the headliner was
so impressed that he started passing out copies to musicians, writers and DJs, including Bob Harris at
the BBC. When Morlix produced Darryl Lee Rush’s album, “Llano Ave.,” he convinced Rush to open the
album with Baker’s song “Truale.” There was an article in the Houston Chronicle this year and some
airplay here and there. As Baker records his second album with the same cast of producers and
musicians, his first one is finally being discovered. What listeners encounter are songs like “Baseball.”
The first and last lines are the same: “There are soldiers in the way of harm.” In between, though, is the
seemingly unrelated story of a Little League game, a description of 10-year-old boys chasing pop flies
blown by a Texas wind while their parents drink sodas in the stands. A lesser songwriter would have
made explicit the point that the boys on the field will someday become the soldiers in harm’s way, but
Baker leaves that connection unspoken. He can afford it, because his words describe the game so well,
and because his music wordlessly links affection for the boys’ innocence and fear for their future.
“I wrote ‘Baseball’ sitting around a kid’s baseball game,” he explains. “The kids were just completely
happy to be in the sunshine and wind with their pals. They had uniforms on, and the ball would fly by
and sometimes they’d grab it and sometimes they wouldn’t, but that was all secondary to being on the
field. This was during the run-up to the Iraq War. I was almost a reporter, describing what was going on
including the emotional overlay of the war. My job was to get it down right.
“In my world, those details are like stones that I use to build the wall. I don’t have a blueprint or a
landscape plan that says this is what the wall is supposed to do. I put the walls in some odd places, now
that I think of it. You go out in a field and there are a million stones out there, and as a writer if you use
them all, it’s going to be a mess. What I do is, as opposed to planning ahead, is I wait for an emotional
sense of something. Then I pick the stones that fit and throw the rest away.”

m e r c y         Number 1 on FAR Chart #79
March 2006

Lawrence Kay
Slipcue.com
 A jaw-dropping
singer-songwriter/Americana/red dirt tour
de force. Seriously: where have they been
keeping this guy? Texas-based Sam Baker’s
self-released debut is an astonishing
synthesis of the whole windswept
Panhandle storytelling tradition, bringing to
mind dust-caked poets such as Guy Clark
and Townes Van Zandt, as well as Terry
Allen, Mary Gauthier and Robert Earl
Keen… Of the lot, I honestly think only Guy
Clark comes close to this guy, in terms of
his self-assurance, his clarity of vision, and
the consistent high calibre of his output.
Like I say, it’s one hell of a record. Song
after song creeps up and pulls you in… each
a quiet, haunting, curious jewel. Like many
records in this genre, these songs are
sorrowful echoes of action, the poetry of
lifelong regret channeled into a hard-won,
seemingly unreasonable hopefulness, a love
of life, despite all the crap that drags us
down. Now, normally I get tired of this
stuff fairly quickly — I think the genre as a
whole has devolved into a series of
overly-stylized creative writing class
exercises, stilted and strained, ringing falser
and less compelling the more it attempts to
summon up a sense of “authenticity.” Not
so with Mr. Baker. He just manages to craft
one alluring gem after another; the tone of
the album is half dreamy, half somber, and
when it ends, you’ll want to hear more. This
is a remarkably effective record — both
pleasantly, palpably indie and down-home,
but also packed with interesting, innovative
songcraft. Maybe one reason this album
connects with such emotional force is that
Baker isn’t pretending to be a survivor, he
really is one: this album was written and
recorded after Baker recovered from being
caught in a terrorist bombing in Peru, one
that killed the people sitting next to him, and
left Baker badly hurt. The passion for life
instilled in him by this close encounter with
death resonates through every note on this
record; even his distinctive, slurred vocal
style is a result of the attack… At any rate,
if you like Clark, Keen, Gautier, et.al.,
you’ve gotta check this album out. It’s really
quite good. (For more information, see
Baker’s website at sambakermusic.com )
Maverick
January 2006
Sam Baker Mercy
(available from
www.sambakermusic.com)
*****
Mercy sums it all up. That’s MERCY! As the
Big 0 used to exclaim
It is a rare occurrence these days to find
some new music that really moves you. I
mean something that stops you in your
tracks and worms its way deeper into the
consciousness than most things can do. This
is more than music. This is a shuddering
wake up slap in the face. Sam Baker has
produced a suite of work that will penetrate
you right to the core. At his most poignant,
he will choke you up; when the fire inside
him recalls the whole unadulterated ugliness
of what some human beings do to each
other, you feel his anger but sense that while
shock and disbelief caused him to write
down his feelings, they are nonetheless,
swaddled with genuine love and forgiveness.
When you start listening to this work,
emotions are stirred in the pit of your
stomach as well as your head.How dare they
cause someone this gentle to feel this way.
Of course, without those hellish experiences,
none of this might ever have come out.
Mysteriously, at the end, you actually get to
feeling you have got pretty damned close to
knowing the man.
So, like some great book that is filled with
wisdom, while much of the creativity sprang
from raw experience, there is, remarkably,
an over-riding impression that he is
somehow.miraculously, at peace with the
world. This is songwriting that is so
powerful an outpouring it kind of leaves you
struck dumb. He digs much further than
most care to venture, to communicate on a
level that can be quite unsettling for its ability
to make you examine yourself. Sam Baker
has achieved something extraordinarily
special here.
I felt great waves of sadness sweeping over
me as some of the songs hit their mark. His
style is so emotionally fine-tuned, he leads
you, almost as some re-birthing therapist
might do, to do some serious soul searching.
It’s the kind of stuff that could silence a bar
room full of couldn’t-care-less hard drinkers.
I read that someone had described him as a
‘poetic genius so straightforward and
undemanding it evokes wonder.’ Sometimes
genius is unlocked in peculiar ways.
This is Baker’s debut CD. It sprang from a
death defying experience which might have
stunned lesser mortals into silence. As he
was sitting on a train in Peru, heading for
one of the ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences
that is a visit to Machu Pichu, Shining Path
guerrillas detonated a bomb which blew
apart his carriage, killing those sitting close
by and leaving him clinging by a thread to
life. Emerging from that hellish carnage he
underwent numerous operations and was left
with damaged hearing and impairment which
meant next time he picked up a guitar, he’d
have to play it left-handed.
The studio sessions attracted great company 
with fine people all around him to add just
the right kind of support to make sure this
would be a memorable milestone in the
career of their Austin-based friend. So, guest
vocalists of the calibre of Jessi Colter, Walt
Wilkins, Joy Lynn White, Kevin Welch and
Michael Kelsh joined him, along with
Nashville top gun players Tim Lorsch, Mike
Daly, Ron De La Vega and Mickey Grimm.
This is one of those CDs that
everyone who loves John Prine at his most
profound will want to own. Looking for
some real inspiration? Give Sam Baker a
listen. LT
Tony Peyser
Buzzflash.com
 I recently heard about somebody who was
riding on a train in Peru when it exploded,
the result of a bomb planted by radicals in
the Shining Path movement. Many people
died and this guy nearly did, too.
Remarkably, he’s gotten on with his life.
Think about that kind of determination and
courage the next time you find yourself
whining about something that really isn’t
worth whining about. Anyway, Sam Baker
is a singer-songwriter of the Austin variety.
The title of his debut album, Mercy, is just
one word and so are each of his song titles.
Baker — who’s also penned short stories
— chooses his words very carefully. The
album was so highly recommended that I
didn’t even listen to it right way; I just read
the lyrics. Baker is a vivid storyteller both in
terms of what he chooses to write about
and the brevity with which he brings his
stories to life. Among the people who
populate his songs are a husband who’s lost
his wife of fifty years, a wayward daughter
heading home, a single mom overwhelmed
in a drive-through window and other folks
with hard lives looking for soft places to
land. When I finally played Baker’s album,
its power made me stop whatever else I
was doing. With a country twang and
folksy, folk persona, it took a bead on my
emotions and hit a bull’s-eye. At times,
Baker’s voice seems more ragged than you’
d expect from his picture on the cover the
CD booklet. Baker’s lyrics sometimes are
run roughshod by his vocals. I also noticed
a photo of him playing guitar left-handed,
which certainly is a novelty. Those quirks
notwithstanding, this is a record with a
wounded beauty and an aching spirit. And I
absolutely love it. In a couple of songs,
Baker manages gently to float ghosts in and
out of them. In “Kitchen,” the effect is
stunning. Baker ends the song filled with
fleeting images of small-town life and then
has four short lines to remind all of us of
the subtext of our lives. His heart breaks
and his voice does, too: “Skinny boys with
rifles/Flying off to war/Skinny boys with
rifles/Fighting door to door.” I recently saw
a show on The History Channel about
famous war photographs over the decades.
Baker’s description of those young kids in
Iraq is as vibrant to me as that napalmed girl
in Vietnam and the flag going up over Iwo
Jima. Baker’s compositions are melancholy
but also upbeat. “Change” has a funky front
porch shine to it as he describes another (or
perhaps the same) town’s main street. And
those boys were still on Baker’s mind:
“Those same little girls/Went to work in
those stores/Those same little boys went
away to wars/But when they came home/All
the jobs had gone away/Back to those
places where they fought so far away.” It’s
like watching Norman Rockwell’s America
being outsourced. The songs on Mercy hold
on to those lost dreams and Baker’s torn
between moving on and squeezing so tight
that maybe they’ll come back. He gets
terrific support throughout with a trio of
winning female back-up singers: Britt
Savage (who I reviewed on a strong album
by Randy Wayne Sitzler,) Joy Lynn White
(another favorite of mine) and Jessi Colter
(an outlaw country legend and the longtime
wife of the much-missed Waylon Jennings.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention track 10 on
Baker’s album. “Steel” depicts a guy riding
on a train in Machu Pichu that blows up.
You see, that person I mentioned earlier
was none other than Baker himself. He’s
had many surgeries since then. The reason
some of Baker’s vocals are raspy is because
that blast affected his hearing, He plays
guitar left-handed because of other injuries
he sustained. A near-death event like this is
clearly life-altering. It explains why Baker’s
songs have such depth and resonance. In
“Angels,” the chorus is especially haunting:
“Call a truce/Call a war/Everyone is a
bastard/Everyone is a whore/Everyone is a
saint/Everyone is redeemed/Everyone is at
the mercy of another one’s dream.” This is
big, poetic stuff but Baker serves it up not
on a gold platter but more like a cafeteria
tray, which everyone can relate to. I don’t
think it’s premature to think of Baker as
being part of the hallowed singer-songwriter
tradition blazed by the likes of Townes Van
Zandt, Guy Clark and John Prine. It’s like
there was a storm, a couple of huge oaks
fell down at your local park and you
suddenly saw another big tree behind them
in full bloom. In a music world riddled with
deadwood, Sam Baker is a redwood.
Used by permission  Tony Peyser and Buzzflash.com
John Conquest
Third Coast Music
 First, I owe Baker an apology. I wrote a
rave about this album when he sent me a
copy of
the 2004 self-release, but the computer
ate it and I never got round to rewriting it.
However,
occasionally life hands you a second
chance, and I’m Saving this sucker every
inch of the way.
The key to understanding Baker’s
compelling storytelling is his own story; in
1986, he was on
a train in Peru when a Sendero Luminoso
bomb exploded, killing eight and
wounding 40,
including Baker, whose femoral artery
was slashed. “I should bled out right
there.” After eight
hours of surgery and 17 reconstructive
operations back in the US, he had to learn
to play
guitar left-handed and is still deaf in one
ear, partially in the other. “My prior
songwriting was
pretty boilerplate: ‘I love you, you love
me, you don’t love me.’ After (the
incident) those
songs didn’t make as much sense to me. I
was a better observer of other people and
how they
lived their lives.” Observation is, indeed,
Baker’s exceptional gift. He’s been likened
to Townes
Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but a better
comparison would be with the precision
and concision
(like the album itself, all his songs have
one word titles) of Terry Allen’s West
Texas vignettes,
Born and raised in Itasca, TX, now based
in Austin, Baker, like John Trudell or
Roxy Gordon,
can barely sing, but he doesn’t need to,
his words do all the work—and then
some. I don’t
recall ever calling an album powerful, let
alone important, before, but Mercy is
both. JC
Wheat Field
Wheat Field

Comments are closed.