From the balcony, it was the perfect view of the stage and dance floor. It was nearly midnight at Cartoon’s Oyster Bar and Grill in Springfield, Missouri, only hours before the blizzard of the year coated the city in a thick white sheet. Just below, couples danced at the front of the high rise and others were throwing back frothy beers within the company of friends. Even on the second floor, people were deeply entranced by the Blues, some in the moment, eyes closed, swaying their arms, and others were leaning over the railing, letting their hair hang low and bobbing their heads rhythmically to the skip of every snare hit. Everyone was having a great time and really loved being there. Fiery, distorted licks flew from an oil can guitar and attitude packed vocals belted from Samantha Fish.
After she finished the song, she took a moment to address the crowd, telling them that she just received a text message from Royal Southern Brotherhood’s Mike Zito concerning the Kansas City Chiefs losing again. Being that she was from KC, it was understandable why she would ask if the audience could do her a favor and flip her camera phone the middle finger, for Mike Zito. Her drummer Go-Go and bass player Chris looked to be enjoying themselves in the moment, gazing out to see the older couples laughing, delightfully flipping the birdie, and one lady took so much pleasure in the moment that she held up both hands and shook them defiantly as if she were reliving rebellious teenage years.
This on-stage action is a telling glimmer of Samantha Fish’s friendship with fellow Blues artist Mike Zito, whom she lovingly describes as a sibling.
“Man,” she said. “He’s like my big brother. He’s been so helpful to me, and he’s believed in me from the start, and you know, we’re a good team. It’s good to have people like that, friends in the industry that are looking out for you.”
She met Zito through Knucklehead Saloon in Kansas City when a lot of national acts were touring through, and when the time came to pursue music professionally, she began to go to jams and started quitting her jobs, tried to get gigs and put bands together. “Mike Zito and Frank Hicks are really the ones who helped hooked me up,” she said. “They got me with the agency, booked the ‘Girls with Guitars’ [tour] and got me with the record label.” Zito has since produced Girls With Guitars and Fish’s solo albums, The Runaway and Black Wind Howlin’. “He’s just a great guy. He’s been helping me with my guitar stuff. I think he’s hands down one of the best out there. I’ve got a lot to learn from him.”
It was in Kansas City, where powerful names like Big Joe Turner and jazz cat Charlie Parker were born, that the roots of her musical ambitions were planted, but they didn’t exactly begin on the guitar. “As far as musically,” she said, “I started playing drums when I was thirteen.” Fish explained the inane quality of the first drum set her parents got her and was apologetic about what she probably did to their ears. “It looked really, really cool. I was like, ‘I really want to be in a rock band!’ I wanna play the drums.”
It wasn’t too much longer until she started on the guitar. She made it a point to go to jams and meet new people, fresh musicians like her, all while working her jobs. “When I put my band thing together, we ended up getting this weekly jam at a little bar in Kansas City called Hannibal’s. It became a huge jam, man. It took me a couple years, but I think our biggest night was forty jammers show up. On average, we were having twenty to twenty-five people a night coming up to play. It was a hot little thing for a while. That was kinda my first professional spot.”
Growing up, Fish listened to her parents’ rock and roll; the classic sounds they loved listening to: The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and songwriters like Tom Waits and John Hiatt. When she began teaching herself how to play a guitar, she really wanted to perform like one legend.
“I wanted to be like Angus Young. I used to watch this Live at Donington DVD. I could kinda see what he was doing, but then I found out about Stevie Ray Vaughn, and then I wanted to be the girl version of Stevie Ray.”
From there, she started traveling backwards, listening to the older Blues, and found herself falling in love with the greats, such as Freddie King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, and then even further back she became entranced with Skip James and Charlie Patton, the delta blues, and the gritty, raw blues. “I think that for me is where I started to shape the genre I wanted to go into.”
After a short chat about the dreadful drive back to Kansas City in the snow from her show in Springfield, Missouri, she could only think about how terrifying driving the van was — the back end fishtailing all over black ice and having to drive slow for nearly seven hours to get back home with the band. Not all gigs were like that one though. When she describes her first gig, she lets out a painful chuckle and groans at the thought. “It was pretty bad,” she laughed. “Frank Hicks at Knucklehead Studios called me in to do this favor for him. Don’t laugh at me because this was not a Blues gig. Hannah Montana had a show in Kansas City. It was Miley Cyrus when she was doing the Hannah Montana thing, and the Ticket brokers had all bought the tickets up and jacked all the prices up so a lot the young kids couldn’t go. So Frank had his nieces, and they were all having a big Hannah Montana party at Knucklehead’s and they asked me to come out, because I’m a blonde girl that played guitar, and I learned a bunch of Hannah Montana songs to sing for these kids. They ate me alive. They hated me.”
“I could not come close to their Hannah Montana, Goddess, whatever. I had little kids come up to me and say ‘You’re not as good as Hannah Montana.’ It was like something out of a sitcom, very much a Seinfeld moment.”
Samantha Fish’s most recent album, Black Wind Howlin’, released back in September, is Fish’s most ambitious project to date. “I think it’s my best record,” she said. “I’m really proud of it. It’s a little different. I think it’s a little more rockin’, and there’s a couple more curveballs on it.” Another Zito produced album, it was backed by Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott and was recorded down at Dockside Studios, a beautiful compound right on the Louisiana bayou. Speaking about the album, Fish spent some time finding her voice and figuring out the sounds in her mind. “It takes a long time to connect with that,” she said. “I think it’s the closest I’ve come to me yet.”
Being a big fan of lyricist such as Hiatt and Waits, Fish has focused on the imaginative storytelling aspect of songwriting. “I’ve been working really hard on writing,” she said. “I think the songwriting is better, the playing is better, but I leave it up to the audience to decide if they like it.”
Fish described her guitar style as a work in progress. “It’s true,” she said. “Every guitar player looks at it that way. It’s a mash up of my influences and the things I want to sound like, but I don’t feel like I’m trying to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Keith Richards. I mean, I’ve had people come up to me that have told that I have a sound, which I think is a really big compliment.” Her guitar style is prevalent in her song “Black Wind Howlin'”, and “Go to Hell” captures the pure fret board badassery that is Samantha Fish.
“As of right now, I really like, always liked, “Black Wind Howlin” because I get to rock out on the guitar. I enjoy the cigar box tunes too,” she said. “Got an oil can guitar I really enjoy. It’s just kind of different, and adds different texture and feel. But you know the ballads are really fun too. It’s just great when they’re dancing, and then suddenly it becomes one of your favorite songs. I love playing my original works though. We played a show in Kansas City and people were actually singing the words to the original tunes, and I was like, ‘wow’. It was amazing. That was very uplifting.”