In the world of music, success doesn’t always come to the most disciplined.
Nor does it always ordain the most talented.
But sometimes, success gets it right and embraces those who deserve it.
Take the rapidly evolving story of Samantha Fish, which began roughly seven years ago when she first holed up in her bedroom and taught herself to strum chords on an acoustic guitar. She was 15 then and intent only on learning something new every day. It was an inauspicious start to a story that has gained momentum ever since.
The latest milestone came Sunday night, when Fish and her band opened for Buddy Guy at his Legends club in Chicago. The show was sold out.
“It went great,” Fish, of Kansas City, said Tuesday. “Buddy’s show was so outstanding. He’s such a showman.”
How Fish got from her suburban bedroom to the stage of one of the biggest blues clubs in the country is no secret: She took some risks, she took some lessons and she worked hard.
“From the first time she was in here, she just kept getting better and better and then she just completely took off,” said Frank Hicks, owner of Knuckleheads, the East Bottoms music venue where Fish first played in public when she was 17. She has since headlined shows at Knuckleheads, once drawing a crowd of more than 250. She and her band perform there at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
“She never stops watching or learning or working,” Hicks said. “No matter how good she gets, every time you see her, she has improved from the time before.”
Later this month, Fish, 22, will start her third tour of Europe with the trio Girls With Guitars, a project started by the label she signed to, Ruf Records. In late February she will be on the same bill as Johnny Winter and Corey Harris at the Sighisoara Blues Festival in Romania. In May, she will be in Memphis for the 33rd annual Blues Music Awards, where she is up for best new artist for her solo album “Runaway.”
The success and accolades, however, haven’t affected her perspective or work ethic.
“I’m still learning,” Fish said. “I’m still a work in progress”
‘It worked itself out’
Fish grew up in a home filled with music.
“She was around guitars all her life,” said her father, Bill Fish. “I played a lot, mostly around the house. And friends would come over and play. But she never showed an interest until she was 15 or so when she said she wanted one for Christmas.”
Fish said he showed his daughter a few things on her first guitar, an acoustic, but for the most part she disappeared into her room for hours, teaching herself how to play.
“I focused on strumming chords and singing,” Samantha Fish said. “My influences weren’t the blues then. I liked mostly rock: the Stones, Tom Petty, the Black Crowes.”
On a family vacation filled with too many rainy days she watched a Stevie Ray Vaughn video a few dozen times, then went home and practiced what she’d seen. Then she did the same with lead guitarists like Angus Young of AC/DC and Slash of Guns N’ Roses.
At a neighborhood porch party, with local guitar heroes like Greg Camp in attendance, Fish gave her father his first look at what she’d taught herself over the previous year or so.
“There were about 150 people there,” he said. “She asked Greg if she could play. He handed her a guitar, plugged her in and she played. No one, me included, had any idea what she could do. She didn’t miss a lick. She’s been that way since.”
The blues became her genre, Samantha Fish said, because it gave her entry into the local blues community and its many jam sessions.
“I went in reluctantly,” she said, “but this is a huge blues town. So I learned some standards and started going to the open jams. And I fell in love with it. It was a good way to express myself.”
So she studied a wider variety of players, like Freddie King, Skip James, Son House and Charlie Patton. And her father started taking her to Knuckleheads, where he works occasionally and where she saw Mike Zito, Tab Benoit and local blues heroes Trampled Under Foot.
“I’d watch them play, then go home and work on the guitar,” she said.
By the time she was ready to graduate from Shawnee Mission North, Fish had decided that what she wanted to do most with her future was what she loved most: play music.
“My counselors were saying, ‘No, you probably should go to college,’” she said. “But it had already taken hold. I was absolutely certain this was what I wanted to do.”
After high school, she spent two years working two shifts at a pizza joint, managing the store and delivering pizzas. Eventually that and playing gigs got to be too much, so two years ago she quit the pizza life and became a full-time musician.
“I had no band, no gigs scheduled,” she said. “So I called a couple of guys and set up some gigs. I struggled at first, but it worked itself out.”
At a gig at Knuckleheads in 2010, the right person was in the right place at the right time, and that risk and the years of practice started paying off.
The whirlwind begins
Nothing shows the breadth of Fish’s accomplishments better than “Runaway,” her debut studio album. She wrote nine of the 10 songs; the other is her electric country-blues cover of Tom Petty’s “Louisiana Rain.” The songwriting is a mix of styles, each blues-based but with a different twist or take.
In November, Fish was the cover story in Premier Guitar magazine, which had this to say about “Runaway”: “It’s an impressive outing that spans several styles — from the rumba-fied country-boogie of ‘Soft and Slow’ to the smoky jazz vibe of ‘Feelin’ Alright’ and ‘Today’s My Day.’”
Veteran Kansas City drummer Go-Go Ray, who joined Fish’s band in late September, said: “(Her music) isn’t the usual blues that stays in one area. She can get real quiet and do the jazzy thing or she can roar like at a rock concert. She really puts her own spin on it.”
She has also developed a voice that is getting as much attention as her guitar work.
From the album review in American Blues magazine: “Her singing is the real treat on ‘Runaway’: Her control is exceptional; her elocution is superb ... and her phrasing is never overwrought or strained.”
Fish went to vocal coach Suzanne Blanch for some lessons after realizing something was wrong with her technique.
Like those who have watched her evolve as a guitar player, Blanch said Fish has blossomed as a singer.
“She was 19 when she first came to me and her voice was pretty, but not strong,” Blanch said. “So I showed her some techniques to give her more power and range and control.
“She catches on really fast. She went off and worked on her own with what I gave her. Every so often she comes back for another lesson, and I can see how vastly she has improved.”
“Suzanne helped me so much with my breathing and getting me to relax,” Fish said. “By the end of my first lesson I was hitting notes I didn’t know I was capable of.”
Her singing and playing caught someone’s attention at a Knuckleheads show in spring 2010: Tina Terry of the Piedmont Talent Agency was in attendance, and, to make a long story short, she ended up connecting Fish with Thomas Ruf, who runs Ruf Records in Lindewerra, Germany.
Ruf was looking for someone to fill his Girls With Guitars trio, which is part of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan Tour, and he was interested in Fish. Mike Zito, who had become a mentor (and would produce “Runaway”) alerted her that something big was brewing.
“He called me and said, ‘You’re going to get some emails about some really cool stuff, and you really need to do it,’” she said. “I’d been doing some really cool stuff already, but nothing of this magnitude.”
So she signed with Ruf Records and joined the group with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. In September 2010, they came to Kansas City to do preproduction work for the tour and the album. In October they recorded the “Girls With Guitars” album in Berlin. In January 2011, they headed to Europe for a two-stage tour that would comprise 170 shows, some in festivals with crowds of 5,000 or more, some in clubs filled with 500 people. They also picked up an endorsement deal with Fender, which bestowed upon each a guitar. Fish’s Blacktop Telecaster is now her prized guitar.
At the end of the tour, Fish recorded “Runaway,” which was released in May.
“The whole year was a whirlwind,” she said.
And that wind hasn’t stopped whirling.
It’s a Thursday night and a standing-room-only crowd fills BB’s Lawnside BBQ in south Kansas City.
Fish and her band — Ray and bassist Paul Greenlease — are holding court. About 150 people are seated at tables, dining on barbecue, or standing along the bar or along the walls, sipping beverages and listening to Fish show off a voice that sounds even more expressive live than on record.
BB’s has been a live-blues mainstay for more than 20 years, and the music Fish is playing certainly fits within a basic blues template. But it isn’t the standard electric blues that fills so many clubs every night of the year. At times she strongly resembles one of her music heroines, Bonnie Raitt; other times she and her band issue a sound with its own subtle traits and accents that separate it from the pack.
Ray, who plays with a wide variety of bands (including Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle), said playing the blues with Fish isn’t by the numbers.
“The blues is a sacred tradition,” he said. “But she lets me do crazy things you don’t usually do, like a drum solo.
“Or if I hear her repeat a rhythm line, I’ll play that line on the drums — and she always turns around and smiles — and then (I) go back to the beat and give her something to stand on. It’s almost a big band approach.”
“Sam has developed her own sound,” Blanch said. “Her voice has a distinct quality. I go to a lot of blues clubs and hear a lot of blues singers and none sound like her. And her songwriting is exceptional, too. She really has a knack for writing hooks.”
Bill Fish said he imagines his daughter will end up performing music that doesn’t fit snugly into one category.
“The Ruf Records motto is ‘Where the blues crosses over,’ and I think that’s appropriate,” he said. “The blues community may not want to hear it, but I think she’s going to develop her own niche, something that’s got some kind of Americana feel to it but is her own.”
The More Girls With Guitars tour starts later this month, but this time British guitarist Victoria Smith has replaced Taylor. The tour is booked Jan. 22-Feb. 18, March 6-31 and May 15-27. There’s also that festival in Romania in late February.
Fish said that touring can be rigorous and monotonous, especially overseas, but she is quick to put things in perspective when the weariness threatens to overtake her.
“I’m doing what so many people would love to do,” she said. “I remind myself how lucky I am and forget about the grind.”
That process of immersing oneself in a new environment, in new cities surrounded by new people, also has helped her grow. The girl who started alone with a guitar in her room figured out right away that the only way to improve is to practice; she has evolved into a woman who knows another way to mature personally and professionally is to break molds, explore new terrain, take more risks.
As Ray put it: “Samantha climbs one mountain so she can get to the next one and climb it.”
The first overseas tour, Fish said, “was weird and stressful, getting thrown into new situations. It broke me down, and I had to start over.
“Playing with your band and playing the same songs every night — that makes you better. But nothing makes you better than being put in new situations and trying something different and having to make it work. You learn a lot from that. Getting into different situations with different players makes you adapt and grow. It’s vital. And I want to keep growing.”