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The Evolution of Sammy Brue

The Evolution of Sammy Brue

By Courtney S. Lennon, Editor

Sammy Brue is in mountains of Morgan, UT on vacation. Morgan, about a half hour drive from his home in Ogden, UT, which at one time, was the second biggest city in Utah. Ogden began as a railroad town with a rich outlaw history. Brue’s family moved there in 2011, due to the rising cost of living in Oregon. At that point, his family was ready for a change. Though Brue is still adapting to Utah, waking up and seeing the mountains, is what he loves most about it.

Brue is out riding ATVs in the mountains, when his father, Mike answers the phone, which still has an Oregon number. Mike apologetically explains that the ATV ride is taking longer than expected and that there’s spotty cell reception in the mountains, but that Sammy will be back within the hour. A reminder, that since inking a record deal with New West at the age of 14, coming off the heels of releasing his debut album I Am Nice, and after returning from a tour with Justin Townes Earle, Brue is still, as much as possible, a normal teenager.

Brue calls back 45 minutes later from a Utah phone number. His voice sounds surprisingly mature. He has a laid back vibe when he speaks, a reflection of both his Northern Pacific and skater roots. He has a confidence and easiness beyond his years. For most of I Am Nice, Brue sings with a shaky tenor and a sometimes angry growl that he didn’t have on his first EP, I Don’t Want You To Leave. Having re-recorded some of the songs from the EP on I Am Nice, it’s easy to hear the difference. His voice, no longer as high pitched and worlds different from when he started out six years ago. And at 16, Brue has already noticed the changes. He relates it to when John Prine adapted after his voice got ‘messed up.’ A reference to Prine, showing that Sammy Brue is cool, no matter what age he is.

“I notice it a lot. Every day it seems I’m like ‘Oh gosh. I’m going to have to write my songs in different keys eventually.’ I worry about it because of a having a band learn songs in one key, then changing them. I hope that doesn’t have to happen,” he says.

In 2011, Brue was given his first guitar, a Yamaha DR1 that cost a about $100 as a Christmas gift. He chose it, because, at the time he was small for his age, so he had to find a guitar that fit. Shortly after getting the guitar, he began to write songs.

“After a month, I started learning old Bob Dylan, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie songs like ‘This Land is Your Land,’” he explains. “Then I started writing my own songs.”

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

Growing up, Brue’s exposure to music came from his father. They would drive around the mountains of Oregon, listening to Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and more contemporary artists like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers. His father never listened to the radio, so Brue thought the music he was hearing was being played on the radio at the time. When Brue was eight, he listened to the radio for the first time. But he was still drawn to the music he heard early on.

“I connected with that music because it sounded real. There were actual people playing these instruments. It’s in this dirty sounding room. It’s dirty and beautiful at the same time,” he says.

“When I started out, I was a folk singer. I played guitar and had a harmonica rack. I played three chord songs, about war, politics and love.”

Brue’s father helped him when he began writing and taught him the first chords he learned. The first song Brue wrote, was called “The Woody Guthrie Song.” The title, fittingly recalls Bob Dylan’s 1962 ode to his hero, “Song to Woody.”  Brue’s song, is about taking his goals and putting them into words.

Young boy and his first guitar / Dreams of being a rock and roll star / Six strings and an empty bedroom / Is where his journey starts / So he plays / He plays the greats like Cash and Dylan / Dreams of making a record someday / Head full of hope and a heart full of song / Takes him down these lonesome highways / Like Hank Williams he rambled and he roamed / He lives his life like Woody Guthrie song

These days, Brue has already accomplished much of what he wrote in “The Woody Guthrie Song.” But, he knew from the time he picked up his first guitar, that he wanted music to be his career.

“I was raised that way. When I first started playing, my dad asked ‘Do you want to do this?’ and I said ‘Well, yeah. I want to be a rock star.’ My dad said ‘Okay, let’s do it,'” he admits.

“I’ve been in that mindset, where that can happen if you just do it and work for it.”

When he was 10, Brue began his journey as a singer-songwriter. He started out busking on 25th street in Ogden. 25th street, having a dirty past that includes whorehouses and gangsters. Now, it is one of the cooler streets in Ogden. He played in front of an antique store called Sock Monky’n Around. He rotated four of his own songs and four covers, which he would play for two or three hours on repeat.

“The owners were super cool. They would always give me stuff, let me chill inside, gave me some drinks. That’s how I got my name out in Ogden,” he explains.

“I still have people coming up to me saying ‘Hey I remember when you were playing on 25th street.’”

Brue’s dad, has always been his biggest advocate and supporter. When he was busking, his dad took videos and put them YouTube. He continued to do that as they started to record songs. Over the years, Mike has also learned photography and has taken some incredible photos of his son on tour.

Brue with his signed The Loar Guitar. Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

“That was always him. He tried to make the sound good. And he talks to a lot of the people. He’s a hustler,” Brue says.

When his dad discovered Justin Townes Earle, Brue’s life changed. Yuma, Earle’s debut EP, was on repeat. He immediately connected with the sound.

“Justin’s songwriting was just amazing to me, even though I was so young. The fact that it’s in a dirty room and it was cheaply made. He was just singing his heart out with a guitar. It doesn’t get better than that,” Brue says.

After watching live videos of Earle, Brue picked up the style of he is known for. Based off claw hammer banjo, it involves hitting the high strings, then the lower strings. Though he strums on much of I Am Nice, the picking style he learned had a huge effect on the the development of his musical style.

The first time Brue met his musical hero, Earle was playing a show at the State Room in Salt Lake City, when Brue was 11. The show, was 21 and older, so he couldn’t see it.

“So my dad said, ‘Let’s see if we can at least meet him.’ We saw him outside smoking and approached him. I had him sign my guitar and told him what a huge fan I was. I guess he took a liking to me.”

At the time, Brue was playing a The Loar guitar as Earle does. The guitar has been signed by Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell and David Rawlings, some of whom he has already played shows with. Since signing with New West, he plays a full size, 1969 D-lot 18 Martin.

Brue’s relationship with Earle evolved after their first encounter. The next time he saw him, was when Earle asked him to be on the cover of his 2014 release, Single Mothers. Brue represents Earle when he was younger.

“I was really stoked about it. He seemed really stoked about it. He flew me out to Nashville. That was my first time being in Tennessee.”

The photo was taken in a little park that Earle used to go to when he was growing up. At the shoot, there were dragons made out of glass in the background.

“The whole time we were shooting, Justin was looking at them. While we were there, he told us all of the stories about what used to go down at the park.”

Joshua Black Wilkins, Earle’s longtime photographer, did the shoot. Wilkins, who is also a singer-songwriter, has now taken many of Brue’s promo shots. Though Justin Townes Earle is most credited as Brue’s mentor, it is Wilkins and Joe Fletcher (Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons)  who took a hands on approach mentoring Brue. They helped shape his development as a songwriter. Both Wilkins and Fletcher, reside in East Nashville. Brue met Wilkins for the first time in 2013, when he had his dad drive him to a show in Boise, ID to see him play.

Brue with Joshua Black Wilkins in 2013.

“I knew Joshua since the beginning,” Brue says. “He and Joe Fletcher have been around since I was 11 or 12. They found me on the internet and just really liked what I did. I was this kid singing about Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. They really loved it and we’ve been friends ever since.”

“Joe actually went on tour with me not to long ago. He was my tour manager, because my dad couldn’t make it out. For half a week he came out with me. I really look up to him. Here I’m a 16 year old and he’s in his 40’s. He’s teaching me about all this music and I teach him about music. You find a connection with people like that. I think that connection is going to last.”

Being exposed to veteran songwriters had a huge impact on Brue’s life. A lot of the heartbreak songs he wrote, are from stories he heard from different musicians he’s met. Brue’s song, “East Nashville,” which has the chorus “Bye bye baby, stay away from me,” was based on someone who was heartbroken, though Brue won’t say exactly who.

Brue with Joe Fletcher

Today, when Brue is in Nashville, he sticks with Fletcher and Wilkins. But these days, he prefers to stay away from the city altogether.

“It’s not really my thing. I don’t really mess with Nashville.  A lot of drama goes on there that I don’t want to be a part of.”

In July of 2015, Brue played the Wildwood Revival Showcase at the Newport Folk Festival along with Fletcher, John Moreland, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Margo Price. After only a few years of songwriting, he was already performing the same festival that Bob Dylan first played in 1963.

“That was a crazy experience,” Brue says. “There were a lot of Nashville singer/songwriters there. And I was just some kid out of Utah. A lot of people were weirded out.”

“But if you played the festival, they gave you a wrist band,” he continues. “I kept it on since then. I just took it off last month.”

Not long after the Newport Folk Festival, Brue played a showcase at the Hotel Cafe, a intimate club on N. Cahuenga in the heart Hollywood. The Hotel Cafe is known in Los Angeles for showcasing singer-songwriters before they break into the industry. On certain nights, artists are known to play for A&R scouts and the press. At Brue’s show, there were representatives from Capitol records, as well as independent labels. Bill Simmons, who used to manage the Doors, was also in attendance.

“LA is pretty nerve wracking when it comes to audiences because the audiences are usually performers themselves or people in the business. Playing LA is enough, but knowing these people were coming out to watch made me nervous,” Brue admits.

“But that’s what started everything business wise,” he continues. “That’s how I got my manager, lawyer and record label.”

Brue playing in Los Angeles. Photo: Adrienne Cohen Isom, TJ Music

After the showcase, Brue had several options. One was to sign with a big label, the other, smaller labels. For him, it was best to meet in the middle. Brue signed with Nashville based, New West records, which was started in 1998 by Cameron Strang. The label has a catalog that includes releases by Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and Jason Isbell. Recently, Justin Townes Earle left Vagrant records and signed to the same label. Brue chose the label for these reasons.

“It had all the people that I look up to on it,” Brue says.

Though singing with a label is a major accomplishment, it didn’t effect Brue in the way one would think. He didn’t focus on it and it didn’t change him.

“I didn’t let it get to me. It was cool that I had a record deal, but I’m still just making music. Nothing different.”

After signing with New West, Brue had several different options for producers. He met with John Paul White (The Civil Wars) who had a studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. White brought him down to Muscle Shoals and took him to Fame, the studio where Wilson Picket, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin had all recorded and developed the Muscle Shoals sound.

“I walked in and I see this humongous picture of Etta James up front. And I thought ‘Yeah, this is the place.’”

I Am Nice wasn’t recorded at Fame. It was recorded at John Paul White’s studio, Sundrop Sound in Muscle Shoals. The album was co-produced by Ben Tanner of the Alabama Shakes. The studio is located in White’s house.

“I feel like I had way more fun at John’s studio than I would have at Fame, because it was homey and everyone was just messing around, having a good time. It wasn’t rushed. It was just chill. Everyone hanging out just making music.”

Though Brue was used to playing solo and recording in bathrooms and closets in his house, this was the first time he ever recorded professionally. The album, for the most part, was recorded live, with a band.

“The actual recording was me, a bass player, a drummer and a percussionist. Then John and Ben would add other stuff,” Brue explains.

The recording and production of the album, took Brue in a new direction. Though remnants of his folky beginnings seep through, the finished album is a departure from his early sound.

“I hinted at them that I wanted more of a pop edge. Just so more people would get on board with it. This album is catchy,” Brue says.

The pop edge the producers ultimately gave the album, is in the same vein as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with harmonies, sleigh bells and orchestral elements that bring Brian Wilson’s early production of the Beach Boys to mind. In that way, even the pop sound isn’t modern, but rather, draws on the 60’s.  As Brue has developed as an artist, he’s started to get more of an attitude. This ultimately brought about the direction of the album.

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

“I got more into it.  I started writing more pop songs. Songs with hooks. When I got signed and when I got the album out, that’s where Sammy Brue was. Already there’s been plenty of stages of Sammy Brue,” he says.

Brue sometimes refers to himself in the third person. His real name is Sam Thornbrue. The way he talks of Sammy Brue the artist, is as if he’s a band that is constantly changing, separating his persona as a performer from his normal life.  There is Sammy Brue, the ever-changing songwriter and Sam Thornbrue, the 16 year old kid who doesn’t want to grow up too fast.

The song “Control Freak” is unexpected. His inspiration came from an interview he saw with Kurt Cobain, where the interviewer said ‘you are such a nice guy and nobody knows you.’ Cobain replied ‘I’ve always been a nice guy but people just want to look on the outside layers.’ Brue, decided to call his album I Am Nice, after a lyric in the song, because he wanted people to know he was a nice guy. “Control Freak” creeps up on the listener, revealing a new side of the young songwriter. It starts out with a 60’s rock vibe featuring a Hammond organ, but transitions into punk rock at the choruses. “Control Freak,” a major departure from the Americana sound that got him noticed.

The first verse on “Covered in Blood,” sounds like the first incarnation of Brue. It is driven by what sounds like a suitcase kick drum, with gritty, grainy guitar, giving it the atmosphere of an old blues song. But at the choruses, it rocks out.  Brue’s voice on the song, angry and gravelly.

Brue playing the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. Photo: Adrienne Cohen Isom, TJ Music

“I have more of a punk rock attitude now. Live shows are getting crazier, attitude is getting crazier. Things evolve,” Brue says.

“A lot of the songs, the outcome on the record and how I play them live is way different. I didn’t intend for ‘Was I the Only One’ to be 60’s, doo wop rock. It was originally acoustic, slower and dirtier. Then it came out like that and I freakin’ loved it.”

“All of the songs are completely different on the album,” Brue continues. “All of them have different meanings and stories behind them. The collection of songs I chose, I thought they all went together in a weird way.”

When he began writing songs, Brue drew inspiration from everywhere. Be it stories he’d hear, something on TV or “family drama.” Since he started writing songs, he’s kept a notepad with him to write down ideas when he feels creative. As he has gotten older, he is now able to write about his own experiences.

“A lot of the songs I’m writing lately have been about my whole life. I’m not used to it.”

The two songs on the album that Brue cites as the most personal he’s written, are “Once A Lover” and “I Know.” “Once a Lover,” one of the sparser songs on the album, is melodic and driven by Brue’s acoustic guitar playing, highlighting the finger picking style that defined his sound originally.

“This song was based on my grandmother. I never knew her. But I knew her through stories people have told me. That my dad told me. So, I feel like she’s my best friend.”

“I Know” was written when Brue lived in Spring Hill, TN for six months, after signing with New West.

“That song, was inspired by a girl I was dating. It’s about this musician who has a girl who really likes him. But he refuses to really like her back. Because, when he gets famous he will have all these riches and women on him. So it’s not worth it. But when he does make it in music, he figures out that all of that, the fame, the girls they weren’t worth it. He actually wants her, but he can’t have her. Because he didn’t like her in the beginning.”

“I wrote that song to humble myself. I thought, ‘I’m going to date this girl while I’m in Tennessee.’ I decided I wasn’t going to let all of this bad stuff get into my head. That song is a reminder of that.

The finished album, ranges in sound from pop, to rock and elements of folk and acoustic blues. After it was completed and Brue heard it for the first time, he thought it was ‘pretty cool.’

“It’s different. I’m proud of it. I think it’s a good first album. There’s not a whole lot of albums out there that are like it. First albums are weird. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t want one album to conclude a whole career and make people think this sound is going to be it,” Brue says.

Brue with his Dad, Mike. Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins.

“I’m still trying to tell people that’s not always going to be Sammy Brue. Sammy Brue is always going to be evolving. I’m only 16. I have so many years ahead of me and I think I’ve been stressing about that a lot. But already, there’s been plenty of stages of Sammy Brue.”

Since releasing his record, Brue has been touring in support of it. His dad goes with him on tour. He keeps him grounded through all of the new experiences.

“He makes sure everything is in check, and that no one is screwing me over or trying to hurt me musically or business wise. He’s been a part of Sammy Brue since the very beginning. He loves it just as much as I do. He thinks it is amazing what we’ve accomplished so far. He’s super proud, he’s excited about the future all the time. Six years of doing music, it isn’t that much to me. Because in 10 more years, I’ll be doing it for 50% of my life. Time flies when you’re younger,” he says.

“My dad is constantly at it. He works social media and the online stuff. Because I don’t like social media. He likes being hands on with Sammy Brue.”

One of Brue’s most recent tours was with label mate Justin Townes Earle and Surf / Garage Rock veterans, The Sadies. At first, he wasn’t really as impacted by the touring as he should have been, because it was one of his longest tours.

“I wasn’t excited to leave home because there were unresolved issues. So I wasn’t enjoying the tour as much as I should have,” Brue says.

But in May of 2017, at a venue called First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN, he had an epiphany while Justin Townes Earle was performing.

Brue on Tour with Justin Townes Earle. Photo: Mike Thornbrue.

“While I was watching him, I realized ‘This is my hero playing in front of me. You share the same greenroom right now.’ That’s when everything changed. I started having a new perspective on everything. All my problems were gone.”

“After that, I started living without a phone. It was the best time of my life. That moment taught me so much. And now, touring is one of my new favorite things to do. Traveling is one of my new things to do. I have a new perspective. I’m being in the moment more. It’s taught me to learn more.”

The show Brue most enjoyed on the tour, was at Slim’s on 11th street in San Francisco. It is a club where eclectic songwriter, Dr. John used to frequent.

Brue in San Francisco. Photo: Mike Thornbrue

“That was one of the best shows I ever played. The crowd was amazing and they loved what was going on. It was with Justin. The crowd was vibing, everyone was just having a good time.”

Despite how crazy the last few years have been for Brue, it isn’t until the last quarter of this year that he left public school in favor of home schooling. When he got to high school though, he found it easier than junior high. But, he lost a lot of friends, because they had moved and found new friends. His peers, are also, not surprisingly, into the same music as him. And even now, most still have no idea what is going on in his life. And for the most part, what is going on outside of Utah.

“They know I am a musician and that I travel,” Brue says.

“I brought my friend, Cooper, who I’ve been friends with since 7th grade, out for a week and a half on the Justin tour. He was amazed at what was going on. The crowds I was playing for. The behind the scenes stuff like video shoots, interviews. He couldn’t believe I hadn’t told him the whole story.”

Though there has been a pattern of Americana artists, starting out recording albums that are rootsy, most evolve into playing other styles of music after they get their footing in the genre. Ryan Bingham, caused chaos with fans when he went from Texas Country to rock and roll on his 2012 release, Tomorrowland. Similarly, in 2012, Justin Townes Earle took a turn towards soul with Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Brue however, experimented with different sounds on I Am Nice. Going in the opposite direction, he plans on returning to his roots.

“For my second album,” he  says, “I think I’m going back to the folk singer vibe. That’s what started Sammy Brue. I hope people see that on the next record.”

“I Know” from I Am Nice, available now on New West Records

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Courtney S. Lennon

Courtney S. Lennon

Kin to legendary songwriter Stephen Foster, Courtney is a strong voice in the roots community. She is the founder and Editor of Turnstyled, Junkpiled Music Magazine, which she started after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. Courtney has contributed to No Depression, Lone Star Music Magazine, Texas Music Magazine, and Buffalo, NY-based JAM Magazine. She has written features on Ryan Bingham, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Dale Watson, and Wanda Jackson, among others. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver" (Texas A&M University Press).
Courtney S. Lennon
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