In the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” an author attempts to internalize Don Quixote so fully that he’s able to recreate it rather than transcribe it. Similar metaphysics elevate the deceptively simple music of Sam Amidon, who doesn’t cover folk music so much as he regenerates it, blending together anonymous traditionals and strategic pop tunes in his own inimitable style. Homespun as it sounds, it has the heft of jazz and art music, especially now that Amidon has moved from indie upstart Bedroom Community to the august Nonesuch label for this beguiling new record.
Bright Sunny South features longtime Amidon collaborator Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) on piano, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Chris Vatalaro on drums, with Amidon handling acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and, of course, vocals. That instantly familiar voice is captured by famed engineer Jerry Boys with the same immediacy he brought to the Buena Vista Social Club sessions. And jazz elder statesmen Kenny Wheeler adds peppery trumpet solos to the loose, eloquent musicianship on a couple tracks, including the gorgeous “I Wish I Wish,” where legato piano gently cascades through a guitar and brushed jazz drums.
Compared to 2010′s lushly arranged I Saw the Sign, the arrangements on Bright Sunny South are highly stripped down, blowing over the cores of the songs like spindrift. But the themes are familiar: On the title track, a shimmering Hammond organ and rolling acoustic arpeggios set a Civil War-era lament for lost innocence; “He’s Taken My Feet” is a murmuring religious dirge in the manner of I Saw the Sign‘s “Kedron;” “Short Life” is a becalmed mountain fiddle tune about an unfulfilled promise of marriage, like a downcast counterpart to the jubilant “Pretty Fair Damsel.”
Amidon always mixes a bit of pop into his post-traditional brew, such as his superlative remake of R. Kelly’s “Relief.” Similar hopes for Mariah Carey’s “Shake it Off” aren’t fulfilled by the brief, insubstantial piano ballad here, but a brightly jangling version of Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” is a career highlight, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. The album closes with “Weeping Mary,” a shape-note hymn that Amidon’s parents recorded for Nonesuch in 1977, which provides a clue as to why his curious alchemy works so well — for him, this music isn’t something in a museum, but a continuous texture leading from the past to contemporary life.