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February 17, 2014IM -
In 2006, Carrie Underwood’s song, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” went platinum and spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard chart. Except it wasn’t exactly Underwood’s song.
Underwood’s voice brought the song to life, but it was a songwriting trio made up of Gordie Sampson of Local 355 (Cape Breton, NS), as well as Brett James and Hillary Lindsey, who constructed the powerful Christian-country crossover hit, and who accepted the award for Best Country Song at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards.
Receiving that Grammy, Sampson says, has been the highlight of his music career thus far. “I’ve gotten a lot of little breaks along the way. It’s been very slow and gradual,” he begins, “but the biggest break was certainly ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel.’ Having that song be as successful as it was really opened up the whole panorama for me.”
Now, with a new publishing deal that will take him to Los Angeles, Sampson is hoping that the scope of his songwriting opportunities will widen even further.
Location—and knowing when to stay and when to hit the road—has had everything to do with the evolution of Sampson’s career. Although he states that he had “hardly any country influences” growing up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, there was no lack of folk music to listen to, which might account for the admirable storytelling ability that he makes use of in his country songs.
“Jesus, Take the Wheel,” for example, tells the tale of an overworked mother who spins on black ice while driving home on Christmas Eve, and decides right then to become a more spiritual person. The song was inspired by a story Sampson heard about a woman who was killed in a car accident in Nova Scotia, although he says that most of his songs are “complete fiction—almost like trying to be Stephen King.”
The island of Cape Breton, where Sampson lived up until about five years ago, was not only where he learned to weave a story, but was also where he first found success as a performer. He played guitar with several popular local bands during the ’90s, one of which had some big hits on local radio.
Those experiences, along with piano lessons that he took from his mother as a kid, were the extent of Sampson’s musical training. “I didn’t have any formal music education to speak of,” he says, “but I learned some theory and notation on my own, as I went along.” With plenty of natural talent to augment his self-taught skills, Sampson began to lean toward a career in songwriting.
One of Sampson’s “little breaks” was the release of his 1998 debut solo album, Stones, which earned him a Juno award nomination. Still, it proved difficult to gain recognition on the international scene. So, instead of hoping that songwriting success would come and find him way up on the Nova Scotia cape, Sampson went directly to Nashville—Music City—to find it himself.
“I was trying to do things from Nova Scotia for the longest time, and it was very difficult,” he admits. “Once I got to Nashville and was able to spread my roots in this town, it was a lot easier to develop connections and get songs played. People need to see your face to recognize that you’re a player.”
Sampson is now very well recognized in the country music realm, having written for superstars like Keith Urban of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Martina McBride, LeeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill. But how country music became his niche is something of a mystery, especially considering his own favorite music to listen to falls more along the lines of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pink Floyd, and Radiohead. “I was more at tracted to Nashville and the community, and the fact that there was so much music and there were so many songwriters here,” Sampson explains. “The fact that it was country music was kind of secondary.”
It might seem that writing for others would make it hard to maintain an individual identity as an artist, but Sampson is able to transition easily between creating the next country hits and writing songs for himself. These songs, which he describes as more “liberal and chancy,” go on his solo records; he now has three. The Celtic and folk-based Stones was followed by two albums with a more British pop sound: Sunburn in 2004 and For the Few and Far Between in 2008. “My records aren’t made up of down-themiddle pop songs,” Sampson says. “They’re more of a personal statement.”
Since moving to Nashville, Sampson has also remained true to his roots by continuing his now 20-year membership with Local 355. Last November, he returned to Canada to perform a concert at a rally held by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). The rally was in support of broadcasting more Canadian content on television, a cause that the AFM adamantly backs.
Sampson’s enthusiastic support of AFM causes is a way of saying “thank you” for what the Federation does for its musicians. “I do a lot of studio work in Nashville, and I’m amazed at how much the AFM protects the rights of the session players,” he comments. “As I go along, I realize how many great things are in place through the AFM. It’s pretty powerful.”
Having that power behind him will be essential as Sampson moves into the next phase of his career: working under a new publishing deal with Bug Music, who will match up his new songs with recording artists. Being a Los Angeles based publishing company, this will mean yet another change in the type of music Sampson writes.
Humble and laid-back, Sampson seems well suited for southern life, but he says that he’s looking forward to the change of pace that will come along with spending more time in L.A. and focusing on mainstream pop and rock music. “I’ll get to develop a whole new circle of writers out there, which is fantastic,” he says. “I remember when I first got to Nashville, how exciting it was to develop that circle, and now that will happen again in Los Angeles. It will be really refreshing.”
Plus, he feels well-prepared for the new challenge. “The songwriting process, whether it’s a country song or a pop song, is really not that different. There are just different tools you use,” Sampson says. “You might use a screwdriver for a country song and hammer for a pop song; you’re painting with different colors, basically.”
So could the new “pop” color palette show up in Sampson’s next solo album, as well?
“I think it might,” he says thoughtfully. “The influences, and thus the styles of the records I’ve made, are constantly changing. And of course, I’m constantly discovering new artists that are pretty inspirational. So when I go to a fourth record, I think it could really be anything.”
Whatever it turns out to be, and wherever his career takes him, Sampson plans to continue to write every day and follow his gut. He says that these driving ideals have led to his many accomplishments, which, besides the Grammy, include multiple Juno awards, East Coast Music Association (ECMA) awards, and a Country Music Association (CMA) award, to list a few. But it seems there may be another secret to his success. He and his wife, Helen, have a six-year-old daughter, Amelie, whom Sampson says is “a great little singer” and also a spot-on critic of his work.
“Kids have sort of this visceral response to music. They don’t question why they like it, and they’re not thinking about whether it has a chance out there in the world. They’ll just say, ‘Wow, I really like this,’ or ‘Wow, this stinks.’ Those are the most valuable comments,” he laughs. “My daughter just came in the room this morning and listened to one of my mixes of a new demo, and she told me she really liked it. That usually means it’s good.”