Out of Darkness Comes Light
The empathy and compassion that grew out of a personal tragedy for Sam Baker shine through in his songwriting
The foreboding but rewarding complexity of Sam Baker’s music is evident in the statement near the top of his website’s homepage: “Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.”
Think about that. Aren’t dreams good things in the lexicon of singer/songwriters? In the arts, aren’t dreamers idealists?
Yes, but one person’s “dream” can be another’s horror; one self-described dreamer could in reality be a self-deluded terrorist.
Just consider the experience of Baker, the much-heralded Texas troubadour who plays on a special co-headlining bill with Gretchen Peters this weekend at Miami University’s Hamilton branch as part of Miami’s Regional Artists Series.
Baker was a victim of some “dreamers.”
In 1986, when he was 31, Baker was sightseeing in Peru — on a tourist train going from Cusco to Machu Picchu — when a bomb exploded. It had been planted by Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group seeking revolution.
The attack killed seven people, including three passengers sitting near Baker. The musician had to undergo numerous painful surgeries over several years to recover from injuries to his head, eardrums and mangled hand (which led him to learn how to play guitar left-handed).
Through all of that, Baker turned to music as an outlet of expression. On his first album, 2004’s self-released Mercy, he closed the song “Angels” with the lines “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.”
Those lines have stuck as his paramount artistic statement.
“Obviously, it means we’re all in this thing together,” Baker says. “I was trying to say to be careful with our actions, because we affect so many people in ways none of us can anticipate. That saying stuck in my head.”
Gradually, Baker has refined his writing skills and built an audience. His fourth album, 2013’s Say Grace (also self-released, but this time with a funding boost from fans via Kickstarter),ranked high on many critics’ best-of-the-year lists — Rolling Stone named it the fifth-best Country album of that year — and garnered him an interview with Terry Gross for a segment on NPR’s Fresh Air. Say Grace marked Baker as a thoughtful singer with a deliberative, warm and emotive voice that sometimes borders on narration, earning him comparisons to John Prine and Robert Earl Keen.
Say Grace, which is his most recent release (although a live-concert DVD is coming out soon), additionally showed how well Baker had honed his songwriting. His character-driven stories mix tenderness and humor with an acknowledgement of the hard unfairness in everyday life.
A sterling example of the humor in Baker’s music can be found in “Ditch,” which is told from the point-of-view of a ditch digger working to support his pregnant “crazy-ass wife”: “My wife, God bless her and for what it’s worth/Thinks she and Taylor Swift were twins at birth/Separated at birth/Earth to wife; wife to earth.”
“Humor is the thing that makes us all stay in the present,” Baker says. “I love comedy. If you get people to laugh, that’s a drug.”
The theme of injustice that also appears in Baker’s work is succinctly displayed in “Migrants”: “They got 12 lines in a Midwestern paper/On the pages with the ads for shoes/They were 14 men, they got lost in the desert/They were migrants; they got 12 lines of news.”
Although he had previously dabbled in it, Baker turned to music more after the explosion. He had been a trim carpenter and whitewater river guide, working in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, and he would travel to South America whenever he had enough money to take off.
“Right after the explosion, I started picking up the guitar,” Baker says. “I needed to have the comfort of music, even if I couldn’t do it well. It was pretty awful, because the hand didn’t work. I would look down and see my hands … chopped up, and I had memory of them not being. That was a hurdle to learning.”
In 2000, Baker decided to dedicate himself to songwriting.
“I knew I had something I wanted to say,” he says. “And I didn’t want to put my energy into anything that didn’t carry emotional weight with me. It had to have some emotional bearing on my life, on the things I had seen.”
Although he has become widely acclaimed for it, Baker says songwriting can be very difficult for him.
“For me,” Baker says, “it requires rewrite after rewrite. Editing is God. And also all those days and nights of blankness, either from pain or Demerol, is a conditioning. In some ways, suffering can be a great teacher. I don’t advise it for anyone, but it can offer insight.”
But Baker’s songs aren’t grim and anguished. Instead they brim with compassion and minutely detailed observations on how life is lived. They are revelatory.
“At some point, that suffering, man, teaches some kind of empathy,” he says. “I can flow into other people’s lives a little bit easier. And if you stay around long enough, you learn everybody around you has something going on — like cancer or car wrecks or being in rehab. I write not just with empathy, but with sympathy and compassion for all of us. I think I have sympathy for everyone.”
Above all else, Baker is an optimist, albeit a cautious one.
“I do think it’s my job as someone who is in the present to make things better,” he says. “I think the living are responsible to act with compassion and make the world better.
“But it’s a tough, tough neighborhood,” he continues. “There’s a lot of violence, a lot of dogma, a lot of meanness. But there are so many good people who go to work, raise kids and do a thousand things every day that are good in their daily lives. In my humble opinion, taking those small, good steps are how we do the best we can to make things better. We can only do things in the present.”
SAM BAKER and Gretchen Peters play Saturday at Parrish Auditorium on Miami University’s Hamilton campus. For tickets/more info, click here.