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Petaluman combines skills in music, writing

The music industry puts great stock in a commodity it calls the singer-songwriter. To be placed in that category, an artist has to be able to both write and perform his or her own original material, including the lyrics and the melodies. Recording companies can strike a contract with a singer-songwriter without becoming a slave to the publishing houses as their only source for quality songs.

Chris Samson is a Petaluma talent who fits that definition, melding his talents in writing and creating music. Samson, who retired in 2012 after spending nearly four decades as a local journalist and editor at The Petaluma Argus-Courier, has also been steadily writing songs since his early 20s. He said the two endeavors have long been “parallel paths” for him.

I spoke to Samson, who also plays rhythm guitar in the local quintet “Los Gu’achis,” about his career and the art of songwriting. Here are some of the “best of” question and answers:

Sheldon Bermont: Describe your first crowd reaction.

Chris Samson: “It was positive. I was performing at a coffee house in Falmouth, Mass. called the Jolly Roger. It was the genuinely warm reception that got me over any stage fright.”

SB: How do you define a well-written song?

CS: “I was always told that any good song needs a hook (The almighty Wikipedia defines a hook as a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to ‘catch the ear of the listener.’) I believe that any good song needs a memorable melody and a well-crafted lyric that has a message and can speak to the listener. In direct opposition to that mandate, a lot of what you currently hear on the radio is manufactured, as opposed to being crafted from the heart.”

SB: What kind of guitars do you use in live performance?

CS: “I have two guitars that I use. I had been playing my Carvin acoustic that has an internally mounted pick-up system. But lately, I’ve been taking out my 1968 Martin. It has such a deep, rich tone; and with a sound hole-mounted pickup…it sounds great.”

SB: Can you give me a sample of your song lyric writing style?

CS: “This one comes from a song that’s on my ‘In My Own Time’ CD, called Salvation Train.

‘Fly me away from this crushing decay

Give me something to believe in again

My guardian angel is bringing me home

Through the fire on the salvation train’”

SB: Here’s a trick question: Do you think a song lyric is just a poem set to music?

CS: “In my mind, lyrics and poems are separate genres. Yes, any poem can be crafted into a lyric; but the best songs, for me, seem to be crafted with the melody and lyric being created simultaneously.”

SB: What’s the shortest amount of time you’ve ever taken to complete a song?

CS: “I’m not a prolific writer, but last May I attended a singer-songwriter retreat in Idaho. I wrote three songs in that one week and one of them in just one day. But that’s in an ideal setting with absolutely no outside distractions, which certainly isn’t the case in my normal day, here in Petaluma.”

SB: Can you describe your music for us?

CS: “I’d say my songs are deeply rooted in American folk and traditional music.”

SB: Can you list a few of your songwriting influences?

CS: “Sure … John Prine, Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Joni Mitchell, and Rodney Crowell.”

Samson spent nearly five years on his latest CD effort, and he’s quick to credit his accompanying cast of players, including guitarist Keith Allen of the Steve Miller Band, violinist Al Gerth of The Eagles and harmonica player Bruce Kurnow of Mason Poffit, among others. Trumpet player Peter Welker of Cold Blood handled the song arrangements.

For more details, visit www.chrissamsonmusic.com; his CD, “In My Own Time,” is available at The Mail Depot and Copperfield’s Books; and online at cdbaby.com/cd/chrissamson.

(Sheldon Bermont is a longtime Petaluma musician. Contact him at smb@sbermont writer.com.)

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