Samantha Fish with Jonathon Long
Take cover: there’s a storm coming. With its lyrical thunderbolts, lightning-flash fretwork and ground-shaking grooves, Black Wind Howlin’ is a record to blow your roof off – and Samantha Fish has stood at the eye of the hurricane. “It has a rebellious streak,” says the bandleader of her game-changing new album, “and a prevalent theme is, ‘I’m not gonna take your sh*t anymore…’”
Released in September 2013 on Ruf Records, Black Wind Howlin’ flips a finger at the cliché of the ‘difficult second album’, firing off 12 classic tracks that chart Samantha’s evolution as songwriter, gunslinger and lyricist. “Since completing Runaway back in 2011,” she reflects of her solo debut, “I’ve been on tour pretty much non-stop. I’ve spent a lot of time writing, playing and listening to music. I feel like the themes and the sound of my music have matured. To me, it’s about the human experience from my perspective, as well as people I’ve come into contact with over the last few years.”
While lesser artists work to a template or settle into a pigeonhole, Samantha shifts her shape across the Black Wind Howlin’ tracklisting. She can be brutally rocking on cuts like the tour bus snapshot of “Miles To Go” (“Twelve hours to Reno/ten hours til the next show”), the swaggering “Sucker Born” (“Vegas left me weary, LA bled me dry/skating on fumes as I crossed the Nevada line…”) and the venomous “Go To Hell” (“Oh, this ain’t my first rodeo/You hit yourself a dead end/Your voodoo eyes, ain’t gonna cast a spell/So you can go to hell!”). “I’ve become tougher,” she notes of these head-banging moments, “and I think that was reflected in the sound we went for.”
And yet, elsewhere, backed by the versatile production of Royal Southern Brotherhood guitarist and longtime collaborator Mike Zito, you’ll find Samantha shifting gears to the aching slide-guitar balladry of “Over You” (“Echoing words, said I’d never make it on my own…”) and the redemptive country strum, “Last September” (“Don’t remember the curves of my face/Can’t feel the warmth in my embrace/Well I’m here to remind you…”).
She might stop off for a gritty cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking,” and co-wrote “Go To Hell” with Zito, but all other tracks are Samantha’s self-penned originals, and it’s a mix to keep listeners on their toes. “I wanted this record to have a modern rocking sound,” she explains of the light-footed vibe. “I also wanted it to have elements of Americana, country and roots.”
The sessions proved just as rewarding as the writing. As a seasoned road warrior who will spend much of 2013 burning tarmac, recording at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana was a rare chance for Samantha to put down roots, flanked by a first-call band that included Royal Southern Brotherhood rhythm section Yonrico Scott (drums) and Charlie Wooton (bass), back-up guitar and vocals from Zito, plus guest appearances from Johnny Sansone (harmonica), Bo Thomas (fiddle on “Last September”) and Paul Thorn (vocals on “Go To Hell”). “I had a dream team of musicians and special guests,” she recalls. “And Dockside Studios quickly became one of my favorite places on earth.”
But it was another venue, some years earlier, that set Samantha on her musical path. The songwriter recalls her first musical taste as the classic rock of The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty, alongside contemporary artists like Sheryl Crow and The Black Crowes, but after several underage clandestine visits to the Knuckleheads Saloon blues club in her native Kansas City, she followed the thread from modern masters like Zito and Tab Benoit, through fallen ’80s heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan, right back to the pre-war Delta masters. “I fell in love with it,” she told Premier Guitar of her growing passion for the form, “and started doing my homework by listening to the old guys like Son House and Skip James.”
Soon enough, appreciation for the blues had spilled over into application, and by the age of 18, Samantha had settled on a searing lead guitar style that expressed her own voice rather than mimicking the clichéd blues licks note-for-note. Home practice didn’t scratch the itch, and she broke into a dues-paying period on the Kansas City jam circuit: an apprenticeship at the sharp end that tightened her musical chops, polished her stagecraft and gave her the grit to overcome occasional skepticism about her age, hair tone and gender. “I always hated the idea of the gimmick,” she told Premier Guitar. “People come out just because you are a girl, but then you have so much more to prove once you get them in the door.”
But Samantha got them in – and kept them in – and after an early live recording from Knuckleheads found its way into the hands of label supremo Thomas Ruf, the young bandleader’s trajectory was changed from dreamer to signed artist. Fish’s first appointment for the label was to join Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde on the 2011 Girls With Guitars album: a whip-cracking three-female release that the trio doused with added rocket fuel on Ruf’s famous Blues Caravan tour of Europe and the US that year. “I don’t get that whole competitive thing, especially when I play with the girls,” insisted Samantha. “When you start trying to get over the top of somebody, you lose what makes it great. That’s when you lose the musical aspect of it.”
With her name buzzing on the blues scene and the iron hot, Samantha struck again that same year with Runaway, her solo debut on Ruf. With ten hot tracks – of which nine were originals – and production once again from Zito, this was a debut album that announced the depth of this newcomer’s talent, mixing up gutsy riff-blues rockers like “Down In The Swamp” with the mellow small-hours jazz of “Feelin’ Alright,” while marinating her songwriting in the groove of the Rolling Stones and even tipping a hat to Heart. “It’s all the sounds I grew up with,” she explained, “with my own spin.”
Hitting a receptive international rock press, Runaway was hailed as a thrilling opening gambit, earning a string of rave reviews and accolades, of which the Blues Music Award (BMA) for ‘Best New Artist Debut’ in 2012 was perhaps the most auspicious. “I’m truly humbled by the recognition,” Samantha admitted. “I can barely wait to make record number two…”
So here it is. Harder, darker, bolder and better than even its revered predecessor, this is the sound of an artist on the brink of the big-time with both hands on the wheel. “I really got to do exactly what I wanted to do on Black Wind Howlin’,” says Samantha, “and I’m incredibly proud of it…”
“All that I know how to do is take a pen and a sheet of paper or two, write a few words about peace and love, Louisiana and the heavens above; Bury me when I am gone, with my guitar and some cheap cologne, all that’s left is a pile of bones, remember me through the words of my song.” – Jonathon Long ‘Bury Me’
The road to Samantha Fish’s Wild Heart Records winds along the Big Muddy through Baton Rouge, where young guitar players travel to learn from and experience the legacy left there by the likes of Buddy Guy, Kenny Neal, Tabby Thomas, Lightnin’ Slim and so many others who fueled that vibrant blues scene going back decades into the last century.
Eighteen years into century twenty-one, Baton Rouge born Jonathon Long (he’s retired ‘Boogie’-more on that later) has claimed his own share of that legacy. He has mined, refined and re-defined his beloved blues for over half of his 29 years. The shuffles and homages to the King’s and Collins’s, along with his mastery of the red Gibson, have evolved into what will certainly be a milestone in that legacy, his third album, titled simply ‘Jonathon Long’.
Recorded in post-Mardi Gras New Orleans earlier this year at NOLA Recording Studios, ‘Jonathon Long’, produced by 2018 Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year Samantha Fish, is an extra-ordinary collection of 11 songs, all written by Jonathon save for ‘The River’, written by Detroit’s Kenny Tudrick, a Samantha Fish cohort and drummer for the Detroit Cobras. Long is joined on the record by bandmates Chris Roberts on bass and Jullian Civello on drums, giving it a ‘live in the studio’ sonic signature.