His voice shouldn't hit you this hard. "O death," he sings, "please consider my age." It's a song you've heard Ralph Stanley deliver as a dirge, Camper Van Beethoven turn carnivalesque, but when Sam Amidon sings it, he breaks your heart. All Is Well, released earlier this year on Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigursson's Bedroom Community label, pairs Amidon's voice and guitar with composer Nico Muhly's orchestrations of old Appalachian folk songs, a collaboration that extends both ways: Muhly's Mothertongue closes with "The Only Tune," an unsettling composition built around Amidon's rendering of a story of sororicide and elemental unrest.
Amidon is currently touring with Muhly and Thomas Bartlett of Doveman, both collaborators on his recent work. "I was just playing banjo or violin in Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. I was making a living as a fiddle player, playing traditional Irish music," Amidon recalls. "I started putting down solo versions of the songs. When Thomas came home, he started adding weird sounds to them, and keyboards and drums and stuff. It was really satisfying; it happened very organically."
Amidon's take on interpreting the songs of others is more practically rooted than one might expect. "My parents are folksingers," he explains. "You're not writing the songs, so you're almost more of an editor. Half the time, it's very personal, specific to the lyrics. Something that's really moving, weird, strange, and beautiful. Other times, it's less conscious in terms of the song, and more that it fits over a guitar part."
Asked whether his work with others affects his own songwriting, Amidon responds in the affirmative. "The folk songs came in almost at a later point... that was a contribution I could make to this musical world of people, that I could bring these songs and see how everybody added to them or worked with them."