There’s not a great deal of humour in Samantha Crain’s songs. Over the course of four albums the Oklahoma singer-songwriter’s sparse, dustbowl Americana has documented broken hearts, the hard working underclass, and sad women stranded in post-boom towns.
It’s an observational, hard-bitten approach that’s made her the estranged lyrical twin of Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin and the bastard musical offspring of Townes Van Zandt and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Far from being the austere, emotionally uncertain person of her compositions, however, her stage presence is something of a revelation as she jokes about ‘atomic wedgies’, Marvel’s latest superhero Ant-Man, and how she substituted ‘New York City’ in the country-punk ‘Devils In Boston’ to make it scan.
These anecdotes offer welcome relief to the relentless heaviness of her material, from which her arrangements offer no escape. Accompanied by just support act Benedict Benjamin on second acoustic guitar and occasional harmonies, her skilful fingerpicking is as world-weary as her lyrics.
This means that the audience clutch to the moments of relative lightness like they were a lifejacket, be that the chugging swagger of ‘Big Rock’ – on which Benjamin plays slide guitar – or the lyrical wink of a plumber who claims he can fix a lonely woman’s washing machine on ‘Elk City’.
Crain is clearly a gifted writer who, like Vlautin, could easily cross over into the fiction market. Before she does that it would nonetheless be worth her while investing more time in that lightness of being.