Sam Amidon thought he had a pretty good idea what direction his new album Lily-O was going to go. Then he started recording it. Due Sept. 30 on Nonesuch Records, what turned out to be a collection of distinctive, enveloping songs rooted in folk music didn’t begin that way at all.
In fact, the Vermont-born singer, guitarist, fiddler and banjo player had initially envisioned an album based more on the improvisational material he and jazz guitar great Bill Frisell developed together a couple of years ago while touring New England as a duo.
Amidon first met Frisell as a teenager in the late ’90s, when he would attend the guitarist’s shows at the Village Vanguard in New York and hand Frisell CDs of music he was working on. They were properly introduced years later, which led eventually to the duo tour and then recording sessions for Lily-O.
Jazz at the time was a new horizon for Amidon, who grew up immersed in folk as part of a musical family based in Brattleboro, VT. His parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, perform and teach traditional forms of song, dance and storytelling; his brother Stefan plays drums with the Sweetback Sisters.
Amidon began adding to the family discography in 2001 when he released Solo Fiddle, an album of traditional Irish tunes that he played by himself, on a fiddle. Subsequent albums have included collaborations with childhood friend Thomas Bartlett (with whom Amidon plays in Doveman) on But This Chicken Proved False Hearted in 2007 and composer Nico Muhly on All Is Well in 2008 and I See the Sign in 2010.
Lily-O, his sixth studio release, consists of songs built around Amidon’s music, with lyrics that he mined from obscure folk songs, some traditional and some that are more contemporary. “It’s a bit of a collage process,” he says. It’s also a standard way of working for a musician who doesn’t think of himself as a lyricist — or, for that matter, as a singer-songwriter.