Interview

Rambling with Sam Lewis

Year after year and home after home, Sam was growing fast and growing alone.

He was the friend everyone had that moved away.

Well it gets so hard to try and fit in every day.

Call it a great travesty or a Southern Greek tragedy. It’s alright.

How could they know better? To them it was a normal life.

“Southern Greek Tragedy” – Sam Lewis

Sam Lewis is a country and soul singer who grew up in many towns from the coasts of Florida and the Carolinas to the hills of Virginia with a family often on the move. After attending 20 public schools, he makes friends easily and even his shows become a relationship with his audience as his eye contact and honesty draws people in.

Today he lives in Nashville where he recently took the Ryman Auditorium stage to open for his friend, and Grammy-winner, Chris Stapleton. Lewis, who will also open several dates for Stapleton in May, looks like a blue-eyed picture of Jesus hanging in the fellowship hall at a Methodist church. He wears a T-shirt with a picture of Jesus that reads: “‘I Never Said That.’ – Jesus.” The Southern Rambler recently talked with Lewis in the ship’s chapel on the Cayamo music cruise.

People respond personally to Lewis, and on the stage or in conversations he says how grateful, thankful and lucky he is to be where he is today. He tries to pay it back by helping his friends. He recruited Martin Harley to play in his band for Cayamo and give the Englishman exposure because Harley has done the same for him in the UK. After the cruise, Lewis sent out “nice to meet you” notes to new friends he met on Cayamo.

“Cayamo has been great for me,” he says. “I sang my favorite Grateful Dead song with a badass band, the American Babies. I met John Prine for the first time and sang ‘Paradise’ with him and Kacey Musgraves.” He said Prine introduced him as Sam Elliott three times and “apologized so sweetly.”

“I have met many people I admire,” Lewis says. “But when I passed him in the hall, I was shaking and couldn’t talk.

“Chris Stapleton and that camp have been family to me. We cross-pollinate and I played with members of his band for years. All of the lines intersected on Cayamo when he got up and played with me. I am one of the luckiest people you know. I have a lot to pay forward. I hope I am doing it.”

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Chris Stapleton playing guitar for Sam Lewis on Cayamo. Lewis later opened for Stapleton at the Ryman and will open a few shows in May.

TSR: Was it hard to find your place in Nashville?

Sam Lewis: I am a dreamer and moved to Nashville because I believe you can will certain things to happen. I know I am not going to take over the world, but project enough positivity or negativity and it will come back to you. Darrell Scott and Chris Stapleton live in Nashville and I thought it would be cool to rub up against them and learn something. I set the bar there. Nashville was just a town down the road and I went and made some amazing friends.

TSR: Music began while you were working for 10 years at Walmart. What were your jobs there?

Sam: I started in loss prevention dressed as a bum and followed shoplifters around and tried to bust them for stealing. We had tried to confront them outside of the store so they would be charged for misdemeanor larceny and possession of stolen goods because misdemeanor larceny washed in a courtroom. People got mad when you caught them outside. I hurt my shoulder because a couple of crackheads were walking out with stolen TVs. I tried to wrestle one of them down and dislocated my left shoulder. I have had severe damage ever since. I was phased out of that job and got a job as an administrator for the eye doctor. I had started songwriting, so I transferred to Nashville. The vision center was the only place with Internet access and I worked on my MySpace page instead of doing my job.

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Lewis brought good friend Martin Harley on Cayamo to play in his band.

Martin Harley is the reason I resigned from Walmart. I came home one day and he was sitting on my couch. He booked it through Air BnB and we hit it off. Six months later he invited me over to support his solo tour. I put together a run from Charlotte to New York, via Amtrak, flew to England and toured with Martin. But Walmart wouldn’t approve my two-month leave of absence. I turned 30 on a train from Richmond to Philly to New York after I quit.

TSR: You are laid back in person, but you have a strong presence when you are on stage. What changes in you?

Sam: I feel different on stage. I wish I could be more relaxed. The microphone does funny things, especially when you hear it coming back through a monitor to you. Am I really saying this? There are so many boundaries, laws and lines, and I fight to tear them down. Not just for the audience, but for me. It is a weird veil and I am up there entertaining and thinking, “I hope I am not boring them to death.” I am having a conversation with a group of people at the same time and the best thing to do is not think about it. If I am relaxed, they are relaxed, and we are in the moment. What can I give them right now? A lot of my schtick is randomness, but that is the way we live. I am more observant than smart. That takes time, and I have learned a lot playing to five or six people in a coffee shop, or to 2,800 people who are drunk.

If I set it up right, my songs answer a lot of questions in a short time. “Southern Greek Tragedy” is just trying to piece things of my life together. I am always trying to grow and stay versatile, but there are growing pains.Cayamo 2016-4605

TSR: What do you want it to grow into?

Sam: I am tightening up my music to make it the past, present and future, and document it with an album. I have been listening to a lot of unification and positive messages and trying to figure out what my narrative is. I started listening to Lee Dorsey and Allen Toussaint with their positive metaphors and fun sounds that seep into you and trickle out. I didn’t know I was hungry for them.

I have been writing more about current affairs and what-ifs. It is almost a fictional realm of writing, but that is a breakthrough for me because I don’t read fiction. My tastebuds are changing and it’s a lot to digest. Am I ready to be “Mr. Love Everything?” I want it to be a transition out of what I have already done, but it has to be authentic and from a real place.

I meet a lot of people and they tell me their stories. We seem confused because we know way too much or not enough. I try to focus on their willingness to open up and what I can say or do to help. I have a stage and a mic. How do I convey my thoughts and feelings through song in a non-preachy vibe, or give them something to cheer?

The project I am working on now feels bigger than me. I have a lot of help, but it comes in many different ways and it changes every week. The pieces are in the air and beginning to fall. I am ready to see where they land how they work together. I want to hone my message, but I’m still figuring out that message. It may take a lifetime.

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