TWO events shaped Sam Baker’s life.
First, in a bomb blast in Peru in 1986, he suffered terrible injuries, including brain damage.
Then, nearly 20 years later, one of his songs was played on English national radio by DJ Bob Harris.
They’re the glue that hold together one of the most remarkable music stories ever told.
Let Sam, lovely, laid-back, genial, self-deprecating Sam, take up the tale.
“I caught got up in someone else’s war. I was 32, travelling on a train and then a terrorist bomb went off. I was pretty beat up. The injuries were so overwhelming. All I could do was hang in there and wait. At the time it was like having 10,000 bales of cotton pressing down on my face. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see. It was so just big, so immediate, so there. There was nothing I could do but hope to mend. The bitterness came later.”
People died in the carnage, including a child sitting by him who, years later, he would remember in one of his songs. Sam’s body was a broken mess and he lost two years of his life recovering from the wounds that almost added him to the death list.
Eventually the man who grew up on a small farm in Texas was fit enough to return to his job as a bank examiner. “Yeah, a lot of travelling, just one suit, one pair of shoes, a lot of cheap motels, but plenty of time to practise guitar.
“I’m still not quite sure what a bank examiner does,” he adds and you can almost see the grin at the other end of the phone. “Still, the people were lovely.”
He doesn’t mention that he had to re-learn to play the guitar the “wrong” way round because the left hand was so damaged by the explosion.
He’d written songs before the fateful trip to Peru but had never recorded anything. “Oh no need to,” he says breezily. “They were rotten.” But afterwards, gradually, something changed. “All I wanted to do was create one good piece of art,” he reveals.
“The songs come to me, I never chase the songs, but it’s a long process for me to get down the words I want to say. The songs are like horses in a field. You look away for a while and when you look back sometimes they are gone forever but some are nearer and stay with you.” And so came Mercy, the album of 2004 and the first part of a stellar triology (Pretty World and Cotton are the others), influenced by events in 1986 and his feelings towards them – violence, recovery death, forgiveness, grief, hope.
He gave a self-recorded copy to a man in a bar in America and it found its way to England and the BBC’s Harris, doyen of all things country, alt country, roots and Americana.
“Whispering Bob” played it and the rest is history.
Now Sam’s bigger in the UK than he is in his homeland and back on these shores for a tour which takes in Sheffield next week. There’ll be songs from all three albums, plus some new material. And lots of talk. Because, for a someone who has to wait so long for the right words to come for his songs, our Sam loves a natter. “I played a show a few months ago,” he recalls ruefully. “Two hours it was and I think I sang about four songs.”
Sam Baker is at the Greystones pub, Sheffield, next Thursday. Contact 0114 266599 or www.boohoomusic.com for ticket details.
The Rock@Maltby returns from its period of summer hibernation tonight with a show featuring Uiscedwr. Next Friday’s guest is Ewan McClennan. The club meets at the Wesley Centre, Blyth Road, Maltby.
Guest tonight at Chesterfield Folk Club, which meets at Club Chesterfield in Chester Street, will be Kieran Halpin.
Teller of tales, social dissident, environmental warrior, photographer and, not least, musician Otis Gibbs will be at the Greystones tonight.
French-Geordie singer-comedienne Flossie Malavialle is at Letwell Village Hall tonight.