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Red Sammy

Adam Trice talks touring, singing, and making peace with Baltimore

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Adam Trice (left) is Red Sammy, along with (from Left) Tony Calato, Theron Melchoir, and John Decker.

Adam Trice took the name for his musical alter ego from a Flannery O’Connor character, which probably shorthands his approach as well as anything else in this chillwave world. The 30-year-old Westminster native first came to the Baltimore area 11 years ago to study English at UMBC and went on to earn an MFA in writing from the University of Baltimore. For the past six years, he’s channeled much of his writerly energies into a string of songs assembled under the Red Sammy banner. As trotted out since across numerous gigs and two albums, 2007’s self-titled debut and 2009’s Dog Hang Low, Trice and a shifting cast of musicians explore what the band’s web site dubs “graveyard country rock,” an atavistic sound that borrows from the croon and ache of country, the plainspoken austerity of folk, and a touch of the clanking Americana of mid-period Tom Waits, all highlighted by Trice’s front-and-center lyrics and gravelly voice. New album A Cheaper Kind of Love Song expands the project’s horizon’s a bit with a fuller, harder-driving band sound. Meanwhile the lyrical themes evoke The Road—not the Cormac McCarthy novel, though maybe that’s in there somewhere too, but themes of travel, departure, even escape, as well as the nearly mandatory rock ’n’ roll road song, “Rock Star,” except Red Sammy’s version involves “[driving] five hours to camp in a junkyard. The following is an edited and abridged version of a recent conversation.

City Paper : This seems to me to be a little more of a “rock” album. Not that it’s a rock album, but it’s more in that vein.

Adam Trice: It’s more of a solid, traditional-sounding band on this CD, because it’s drums, bass, guitar, and very basic vocals. Nothing experimental. I guess before our recordings were slow or down-tempo, and now all the songs feel like they’re matched to a traditional song pattern—verses, choruses, bridges, it’s not trying to be too abstract. The words are still basic and to the point. That’s the driving force over all Red Sammy stuff, is the lyric-driven songs. But some of these songs can stand on their own as just music, not just word-driven.

CP : Many times when musicians set out to make a new album, they make it in reaction to the previous album, or to some other factor. What was the plan for A Cheaper Kind of Love Song?

AT: Well, how the process starts is always very personal to me, as opposed to bringing it out and writing as a band. But how these songs were shelled out, a couple of them were written more or less in downtime when we were playing in band formation. [Resonator guitar player] John Decker and I and our drummer, we were playing a couple of gigs out of town, and . . . like that one song, “It Ain’t You,” that was written in a motel room. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we’re gonna sit down and write these songs.” They came at their own time.

And in the past couple of years, I’ve been having a more strong emphasis on placing my own experiences into a place, and my place is Baltimore. Although I don’t say the word “Baltimore” a lot [in the lyrics], a lot of my personal experiences and visions of the landscape come out in these songs. But they’re also not very concrete—if you’re listening to them, they can apply in a lot of different directions.

These eight songs have all come at different times in the last year, and they were the ones that worked the best, and I could mold them easily to a full rock band.

CP : There does seem to be a theme of travel and moving along and going places in the songs. Did that come from touring more?

AT: More so in the past two years have I tried to expand outside Maryland. We’ve been as far north as Toronto, and we’ve also been down south. We’ve also been out west, to some cities in Colorado. But the touring is still all DIY.

I guess how it reflects in those songs is, you try to do this art, you try to spread the word and play for people, but sometimes if you go outside your comfort zone—which is Baltimore—it doesn’t turn out as you hope.

CP : How did you come to the kind of music you’re doing?

AT: I started out without the expectation of it growing or me staying with it for too long. I started out the way I guess a lot of people start, just experimenting and writing songs. I picked up the guitar in high school, and just . . . I moved out to Houston, Texas, for a while, and I was listening to a lot of different music out there. When I was in college I didn’t really listen to a lot of country music—what I thought was country was FM 93[.1] WPOC, some pop-country—but going out to Texas and hearing all these different variations of country inspired me. And when I moved back to Baltimore, I was more driven to craft something I could put my stamp on, both from a writing standpoint and from listening to other people.

CP : It sounds like you came at this not so much from the band side of things but from the writerly side of things, sitting in a room alone with a guitar rather than typewriter or whatever.

AT: I don’t come from that standpoint of playing in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll bands, and the people who play with me, some of them come from years of playing in bands and bringing a certain regimented structure in their playing, where they only understand band talk. When I try to describe it, whatever we play here needs to support more word-driven song structure. Once I find the right people, who understand that we’re going for more of a certain effect rather than a loosey-goosey jam session—that’s not really the direction.

CP : I think it would be fair to say you don’t have a conventional music-industry voice. Can you sing in a more traditional sense?

AT: Well, before adopting this way of singing I’ve been using as part of the Red Sammy idea, before that it would be trying to possibly sing and do something that’s traditional, but again I didn’t want to approach it like that. The vocal delivery and the word delivery are equally as important as being unique on any [other] instrument. There are a number of acts you would say that they’re not necessarily they’re good singers in the sense that they’re singing according to music theory . . . you may even be doing harm to your voice. But the way that I’ve adopted it is to say that I’m not going to sing in a way that’s theory-correct, but this is the sound I want to get.

CP : But could you?

AT: I guess if I were to train myself. I know how to sing from the diaphragm. And there have been shows where it’s been less gummed up, you know? On the recordings, you have the privilege to get closer to the mic and sing in a softer voice, so you can be more low-end and gravelly, but there have been times in a live performance, like in an unplugged performance, you can’t draw from that low end as much, so you have to sing more conventionally. But I try to convey the sense of how it was recorded. To answer your question, I’m not formally vocally trained, but I’m doing the best with what I have. And the people that I’m most interested in from a words standpoint and a vocal standpoint are people who are non-traditional.

CP : Do you think it’s incumbent on anyone who writes country-flavored songs around here to eventually write a song specifically about Baltimore?

AT: I guess you don’t have to. I feel like by naming that track “Baltimore” and mentioning it throughout the song, I feel like, yes, I’ve come to that point, but I also didn’t want to package it in a way [that’s like] this is my ode to Baltimore. I mean, I guess it is, but the whole sense of that song is leaving Baltimore. There have been songs where there are people coming to Baltimore or leaving Baltimore . . .

CP : It’s rarely people being happy in Baltimore.

AT: Yeah. So to pay homage to Baltimore, I guess we’ve done it. But I wouldn’t say it was forced, like hey, we have to write a Baltimore song, but I felt like doing it.

We played a show at the Creative Alliance . . . “The Streets of Baltimore” was the theme, so it was all local artists playing songs about Baltimore. And we played an original song that was about Baltimore, which you wouldn’t think was about Baltimore unless I told you it was, then we played a cover, a Woody Guthrie tune, and then this song, which was a newly created song, so I had about two months. I guess it was an exercise, to write a song about Baltimore.

That song is, you’re leaving Baltimore, but you don’t know what you have till you’ve left it. It has its quirks, and there’s some things you may not like about it, but when you leave and you come back, you may appreciate things that you never thought you would.

CP : Have you gotten any pushback about the line about leaving for “a city that’s more awake”?

AT: When we played it for the first time, when we delivered that line, I heard a little bit of a chuckle. I think the people who are listening to our music will find humor in that.

Red Sammy plays a cd release show at the Metro Gallery June 12.

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