Interview

Sammy Brue: Not Your Typical Teen

Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

At an age when most of his peers are excited about getting their driver's license and finding ways to fit in — during those awkward teenage years — Sammy Brue was negotiating a record deal, hiring a manager, a lawyer, and touring with the likes of Justin Townes Earle, The Sadies, and Teddy Thompson.  

After spending 45 minutes chatting with Brue, who was chillin' at his home in Ogden, Utah after a long, well-deserved nap, having just returned from a short, but intense tour, one learns nothing is normal about this teen. The 16-year-old, who Rolling Stone hailed as an "American prodigy" and American Songwriter dubbed a "wunderkind" wrote his first song when he was 10. The inspiration? A Yamaha acoustic guitar that was a Christmas gift from his father. Shortly thereafter, Brue busked on the sidewalk during the Sundance Film Festival. At 13, Townes Earle, who is one of his biggest fans - and also Brue's mentor - put the budding artist on the cover of his Sinlge Mothers album. As if that's not validation enough of his talent, the songwriter has already shared the stage with veteran Americana artists such as Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll, Asleep at The Wheel, and Lydia Loveless. Listening to the dozen deep cuts on his debut LP (I Am Nice) one senses that he is already an old soul. Somehow, he is filled with more wisdom than those twice his age. Catchy, hook-laden melodies are backed up by keen observations on life and love. Co-production by Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and John Paul White (Civil Wars) adds a wall of sound and extra layers to this troubadour's storied songs. Combine the orchestration and feel-good vibes of the Beach Boys with the outlaw spirit that lives and breathes in the streets of Ogden (once a lawless frontier town) and you start to get a feel for Brue's muse. 

Brue and I connected the day before I Am Nice dropped via New West Records. The casual conversation touched on some of his storied songs, the influence of Woody Guthrie, the inspiration of railroads, and how his recent time following the white line showed him what a big world is out there to explore. The teenager is excited to finally share his new music with a wider audience; for, as one of his early influences (Tom Petty) sings, "the waiting is the hardest part." 

David McPherson: At 16, you've already released two EPs, appeared at The Newport Folk Festival, and now have your first LP on a major label. How did this all come to fruition at such a young age? 

Sammy Brue: What hit it all off was a trip to California where I played a really small show for a whole bunch of important people at the Hotel Café in LA. After that, everything just happened so fast. I got my manager, a lawyer, an agent, and then started looking at record deals. New West came about, I thought it was the best option, and we recorded a kick-ass album.

DM: I understand your dad has helped steer you in the right direction and help you make good decisions as you've navigated your way in the music business. 

SB: For sure. He's been keeping me sane and everything else in between. I haven’t done a show without him yet. He's always there and knows what to do. He's a good mentor and a good dad. I remember the second song I was writing, he was helping me write it, just so I could get stuff written. He also taught me my first three chords and has stuck with me. I think he got mad when I got better and surpassed him, but he's not too mad about that now.

DM: You also credit your dad for introducing you to some of your musical influences, isn't that right?

SB: Yes. I remember driving through the mountains of Oregon listening to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, Tom Petty, and Neil Young, at a very young age ... five or six. That music has always been a part of my life and I believe it always will be.

DM: Who are some of the other influences you've since discovered on your own? 

SB: Justin Townes Earle is definitely one. I’m like a little Justin, but I’m slowly finding my own roots. The Avett Brothers are one of my all-time favorite bands. I love them so much. They are a huge influence on how I see music. Another modern influence is Old Crow Medicine Show. I love their nitty gritty hooting and hollering thing. That's always a part of me. This first album wasn’t too crazy though. It was just me playing my songs. I don’t think anybody really knows that other side ... the punk-rock attitude Sammy Brue. Hopefully, they will see him soon.

DM: Why didn't you break out the punk-rock attitude and add in a little more hootin' and hollerin' on I Am Nice

SB: I was thinking, "Should I do it or not?" It's not that I was uncomfortable in the studio, but I was recording in Muscle Shoals and figured I should probably treat it that way. It was a weird thing. I felt if I got too crazy, it would be disrespectful in a way. I love this album and I'm really proud of it because of the Muscle Shoals' sound. My next album I'll get more crazy and yell more!

DM: Tell me a bit more about those recording sessions. What did Ben Tanner and John Paul White bring to the studio and how did you pick this duo? 

SB: The record label [New West] started looking for producers and they were on the list. We met with some others and I wasn't sure who I wanted. Then, I took a trip down to Muscle Shoals with John Paul, who gave me a tour of Fame Studios and the deal was sealed. I saw a huge photo of Etta James on the wall and immediately I said, "This is where I want to record." Once we got in the studio, John and Ben started getting creative with the production and I loved it. It's not your typical first full-length album.

DM: I read that the key to your songwriting is being a good listener. You are always listening. Talk a bit about your writing process. 

SB: Writing songs is weird for me. I feel I don’t do the same thing twice. The only way I can describe my songwriting is that I take other people’s stories and write them as if they are mine. Take the song,  "Jealous." I wrote that when I was 12 or 13. I hadn’t gone through a heartbreak! I was writing as if the Avett Brothers or Justin [Townes Earle] were writing this song. A lot of the stories and the songs are made up. It's not based on one particular heart break I saw in a movie. Then, there are songs like "Once A Lover." That one is about my grandmother. I never really knew her, but I like to say I knew her through the stories people have told me. She was one of nicest ladies in Lincoln City, Oregon. 

The songs vary in so many different ways. I just started writing more songs a couple of days ago. It had been a couple of months since I wrote anything; then, I just picked up the guitar and banged out five songs. I do like to move around a lot when I’m writing. I keep a notepad in the back right pocket of my pants and write down anything that makes sense; when I feel creative I write it down.

DM: Where does the title of the record (I Am Nice) come from? 

SB: I Am Nice is a reference to Kurt Cobain. It's also a look at the bigger picture kind of thing. I saw this interview with Kurt where the interviewer said something like, 'you are such a nice guy and nobody knows you' and Kurt replied: 'that tends to happen. I've always been a nice guy, but people just want to look at the outside layers.' He was really into drugs and people tend to think people into drugs are bad people, but that's not true. Look at the bigger picture. He was a nice guy. That's the simplest way I could put it.

DM: I understand you wrote your first song when you were 10. Have you always been fascinated with word play?

SB: Yea. My friends and I were always working with words. I remember back in third grade we played this game we called a rap battle. We were basically all saying rhymes that made sense and if they made the most sense you won. I’ve always loved doing that. I love writing short stories that make you emotional and touch a chord with you.

DM: Tell me about that first song you wrote? 

SB: That was me, not telling the future, but telling people what I wanted out of the music. It was called, "The Woody Guthrie Song" and the chorus says something like, 'I want to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone.' I was really taking my goals and putting them into a song. I thought that was really cool. The second song I wrote was called “Lady,” which was just another funny love story.

DM: Justin Townes Earle is one of your biggest fans and a mentor. You also just finished a mini tour with him and The Sadies. What advice did he give you?

SB: Besides his 'stay away from dope type lessons,'  it wasn't so much him teaching me, but just him giving me the opportunity. He definitely did teach me though little funny lessons here and there. Just being on the road has opened my eyes to how big the world is. Everybody here [in Ogden, Utah] wants to be in one place the rest of their lives. Touring has shown me how much is out there. I'm getting all this knowledge at such a young age. It is overwhelming and almost scares me sometimes. I'm telling all my friends how it's such a big world and yet everybody wants to stay in one place. I used to be one of those people. I thought I would live in my hometown the rest of my life. Now, I think that is so lame. I need to see the world. Music is letting me see the world. I’m not planning on growing up anytime soon, but I’m going to stay humble and stay grounded. 

DM: What can you tell readers about where you hang your hat these days: Ogden, Utah, which, despite its Mormom roots, I understand was once a lawless frontier town filled with larger-than-life characters, gangsters, and whorehouses?

SB: When I think of Ogden, I think of 25th Street. That's where I started. There's an antique store there called Sock Monkey'n Around and when I was 10 or 11, and going to the farmer’s market every weekend, they let me busk out front. I would play 2 to 3 hours and get my name out there. 25th Street has a real dirty past; it’s where two of the big railroads met and it does have a crazy history filled with whorehouses and gangsters running up and down the street. Now, it’s this cool little street where people like to go and it’s also where Sammy started. I've started to write a lot of songs about trains inspired by Woody Guthrie and this street. I think I need to start writing more train songs.

DM: Some people go their whole lives looking for a vocation that is something they are passionate about and one they are destined to do. It appears, at 16, you've already found your calling. 

SB: Yea. I’m forever grateful of that. For most people, it takes years to finally figure out what they want to do and it was handed to me over an instrument. It's crazy when I think about it. At 10, I got a Yamaha DR1 guitar for Christmas from my dad and who would have thought a 10-year-old kid picking up a guitar would go for it. Once I signed the record deal I got a 1969 D-lot 18 Martin; that’s my baby now. 

DM: What can people expect next from you when it comes to your future songs? 

SB: I’ve been scaling it back with my songwriting lately. I read this Woody Guthrie quote the other day where he said, "If you are using more than two chords you are a showoff!" So I'm writing more two- and three-chord songs these days and I've been having a lot of fun with it.

Watch the official video for Brue's catchy first single from I Am Nice: "I Know."