The influx of female Blues guitarist in the past few years is refreshing and impressive. These ladies can burn and aren’t afraid to show anyone who cares to listen.
Kansas City native Samantha Fish has been at it now for 10 years and is taking her place alongside notable players of both genders as she blazes her away across the country wowing audiences everywhere with her diverse blend of low-down Blues, Blues rock and self-penned Blues ballads.
“I come from a musical family,” Samantha says. “We listened to music all the time around my house. I started off playing the drums. That’s where my schooling started. When I was 15 I switched to the guitar. My dad played the guitar with his friends at our house. They threw a lot of music at me when I was a kid. That’s where it all started. I always thought it was impossible (to learn to play). I was fascinated by how players could play and sing at the same time. I fell in love with it.”
After spending her early years sneaking in to catch the touring Blues artists who played at the world-famous Blues joint, Knuckleheads Saloon, in Kansas City, Mo. Samantha turned 18 and could get in on the legit. She made friends with the locals and could be found often sitting in with whoever was performing on a given night. It wasn’t long before music…Blues music, became her obsession.
“My parents were a little skeptical about it all at first,” Samantha admits. “They would prefer I had a Plan B, something to fall back on in case the music didn’t work out. I just didn’t have a Plan B. I really didn’t have a Plan A. A lot of people don’t know how to take their playing from a hobby to a business. That’s the scary part.
“I used to listen to the radio every morning before school,” she says. “We had it on the classic rock station. Lots of Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Tom Petty was my parents’ favorite. When I heard Stevie I said ‘I wanna do that.’ One time I was stuck in Florida in a hotel for two weeks while it was pouring rain. All I had was a DVD of Stevie Ray on Austin City Limits. No guitars, so I watched it over and over. I was fascinated by the power trio. I had never seen anything like that before. That’s where I got the idea for a power trio. Stevie Ray was like a gateway drug.”
In 2010 Samantha recorded and produced a live album entitled Live Bait which caught the attention of Tina Terry of Piedmont Talent who saw Samantha perform at Knuckleheads. She liked the show so much that she told, Steve Hecht, Piedmont’s director who in turn who called Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records and told him all about the young guitar whiz. It wasn’t long before Samantha was offered a recording contract. Ruf immediately put Fish on Girls with Guitars, a record that put her in the company of female Blues artists Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. The act was a hit on the Ruf Records 2011 Blues Caravan in the U.S. and Europe.
Samantha downplays any talk of competition between the Blues ladies on the tour. She said she had the future on her mind when she signed with Ruf and agreed to the tour.
“I don’t get that whole competitive thing, especially when I play with the girls,” Samantha says. “We’re different guitar players trying to do our own thing. We enjoy playing together and want it to sound good. I thought since the Blues Caravan is an established tour, I could play these shows and debut myself on their label to help build up an audience. Then if and when I came back with my own band it would be a lot easier. It was fun. We had a lot of good times on the road.”
Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow were some of Samantha’s earliest influences before she discovered the Blues.
“I went to one of his (Urban’s) concerts when I was 17 and that’s when I decided I wanted to learn how to play lead,” Samantha says. “I’m influenced by different styles. My dad took me to a Sheryl Crow show. It was my first concert and I was like ‘Why would I want to go see her?’ She blew me away. She is such a strong woman. Not only does she sing and play but she writes her own music. It’s not all about shredding on stage or vocal gymnastics. I want to be known as a singer/songwriter as well as a guitarist. Bonnie Raitt is another influence. I love the Blues women like Aretha (Franklin) and Etta (James). After listening to Stevie Ray I started doing my homework and going back to the Delta to find out more about the players and where these fantastic songs came from. Skip James, Son House. Those guys. Now, I’m into guys like Mike Zito, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Tommy Castro, and Tab Benoit. These guys have all been very supportive and helpful to me.”
Samantha is well aware of the scrutiny she must endure as a female Blues guitarist in a male-dominated genre.
“People don’t always take you seriously,” she says. “On one hand people come out to see a girl play because they are intrigued. Just because I am a female and I play guitar doesn’t make me a gimmick. I don’t believe in gimmicks or being a novelty. Of course some people come just because you are a girl and find out we have so much more to offer once they’re in the door. It does get them in the door, but they’re skeptical. The hard part is winning them over. The key to it all is creating your own sound. That’s the only way to succeed. I’m constantly working on my songwriting and trying to improve.”
After touring Europe with the Samantha Fish Band and being invited to play on Tommy Castro’s Rhythm & Blues Cruise, the United States is wide open territory for the band.
“We’re still excited to play new places and there are lots of places we haven’t been,” Samantha says. “We are playing Phoenix this week and are really looking forward to that. We’ve never played there before. We’re still young enough that touring hasn’t become drudgery. I haven’t become jaded or cynical…well maybe a little cynical but we’re going to make the most of things and take them as they come.
“We love doing the festivals,” she says. “Just looking out there and seeing the sea of faces is inspiring. But then there’s something about being in a packed club with no room to move that can be just as much fun. We like to play anywhere they’ll have us.”
“We” is the new Samantha Fish Band consisting of Sam on guitar, Go-Go Ray on drums and Chris Alexander on bass. She speaks highly of the guys.
“We’ve really got a hot trio now. I’ve got Go-Go Ray on the drums,” Samantha says. “He won the 2010 Roland Championship in Las Vegas, which is huge for drummers. He’s just a monster. Then I’ve got Chris Alexander on bass who came to us through Mike Zito. Mike used to pay with Chris down in Austin! It’s just been so much fun.”
On stage Samantha can sometimes be seen playing a cigar-box four-string rig she says adds variety to the show.
“It has four strings and I bring it out to add another layer to my show,” she said. “I’ve also got an oil-can guitar and I bring out an acoustic. We’re always trying to keep it fresh and add layers to the set. We’ve seen enough and played enough shows to know you can get tired of playing the same thing night after night.”
Samantha’s latest album, Black Wind Howlin’ features a stellar lineup of artists who bring many years’ experience to the project. Samantha says she is particularly grateful to the help she gets from mentor Mike Zito.
“This was a fantastic bunch of guys to work with,” she says. “Yonrico Scott on drums. Jumpin’ Johnny Sansome on harmonica, Mike (Zito) on guitar. Then we had Paul Thorn, who is not a Blues musician. His music can be classified as more Americana than anything else. He’s been on something like 1,100 sessions. He was just great. It (the record) had nothing to do with gender. They treated me like a musician, not a girl. I feel lucky to have been able to work with those guys.”
To further enhance Samantha Fish’s image and exposure, she won a 2012 Blues Music Award for Best New Artist after her releasing Runaway her solo debut album on Ruf Records. This record was also done with her collaborator and mentor Mike Zito.
“It was very unexpected,” Samantha says. “It’s a very cool feeling. I never expected that kind of recognition this early in my career.”
Being one so young, Samantha says all big shows and new places can go down in her book as highlights but she mentions meeting the great John Hiatt as one of her most memorable encounters.
“We opened for him one night,” she says. “He was just so nice to me. His music covers all genres, not just Blues. The next time I was him he actually remembered my name. I was blown away.”
Optimism about the future of the Blues from a player who is still experiencing the trials and tribulations of being a career musician is encouraging.
“As long as it keeps going it keeps inventing itself,” Samantha says. “It’s never going to be what it was in the early days. It’s still an important time everywhere (for the Blues). Guys like The Black Keys, and Jack White are keeping it alive with their music. It’s all about being relevant.”
Indeed it is.
Visit Samantha’s website at: www.samanthafish.com
Photo by Bob Kieser.