Early in 2008, I got an email from my friends at Landlocked Music in Bloomington, Indiana. I had recently moved away from their town but the gents have a fancy email newsletter, and this particular mailer had a selection of 2007’s best records, by staff and friends of the store.
One of the friends was Jim Manion, of WFHB radio and various other local and online outlets. I met Jim once at his daughter’s housewarming party, but can’t claim to know him. However, though we shared only a single meeting and a brief chat about our mutual appreciation of Townes Van Zandt, I am forever grateful to Mr. Manion for naming his album of the year for ’07 as Pretty World by Sam Baker. He said Baker was the best songwriter he had heard since Townes. I wholeheartedly agree.
In 1986, Sam Baker and some friends were riding a train in Cuzco, Peru, headed for Machu Picchu. According to the US Department of State’s 1997 report Significant Incidents of Political Violence Against Americans, the date was June 25th. A second report, from the Mineta Transportation Institute, lists the date as June 26th.
Little information is readily available, but the train was bombed by the Maoist Gorilla group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. More than forty people were injured, and seven or eight killed, depending on the source. Those killed included a young boy and his parents, who had been sitting next to Baker.
The injuries Baker endured were severe. I don’t care to get into much detail, let us simply say that he was nearly killed. He still suffers from tinnitus, a form of hearing loss. Brain damage left him temporarily unable to access the part of his brain that stores words. He would later learn to play guitar left-handed, as the right hand is able to finger the notes more ably than the left. His vocals might be off-putting to some, as his pronunciation and delivery hold echoes of his recovery, but that is more than forgivable, and I happen to like the way he sings.
Following twenty years of recovery, Baker released his debut album, Mercy, in 2004. A beautiful folk record, it was self-released and went largely unheard. Pretty World, his 2007 follow up, also self-released, received more notice, though not nearly enough. It is quite simply one of the best folk albums I have ever heard.
Taking traditional songs as the backbone, and often keeping the chorus of these songs, Baker takes the verses for himself, to create a portrait of small town America that is honest, heartbreaking, and nothing short of brilliant. Taking the time to relearn language has given Baker an appreciation for words that makes his songs stand apart from the typical singer-songwriter crowd. His experiences, plus the wisdom that comes with both age and long-term recovery from illness or injury, shines through his songs. He sings with equal respect and beauty of drunks in borderline whorehouses, women passing through loveless marriages, men who never bother to find their potential, let alone live up to it. He sings of roses, of a pretty girl lying in the sun. He sings of his own broken fingers.
Sam Baker is a man who understands life. He has seen things that could shatter a man’s mind, and yet he knows the blessing that each day truly is. As an album, I find Pretty World to be better than any of Townes Van Zandt’s studio records, and Townes has long been my favorite songwriter.
I visit Baker’s website periodically, in hopes of news of a new album, and last week my hopes were rewarded. No details have been released yet, but Baker posted on his site that the new album will be out late spring or early summer.
I can’t recommend Mr. Baker’s albums strongly enough. I would buy them for each of you, if I had the money. They’re that good. I obviously have high expectations for the new album, but I also know I won’t be disappointed.