I could tell you a thing or two about Sam Lewis, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter who will treat the Isis Retaurant and Music Hall to his seamless blend of country, Southern rock, and soul on Thursday, Aug. 29. But he’s done a much better job of it on “Southern Greek Tragedy” off his self-titled debut.
“That’s 100 percent autobiographical. I didn’t even change the names or anything,” Lewis says. “That was an interesting writing process, because I didn’t understand until the end of it, when I got stuck, that I was writing through my mother’s eyes.”
It was only from this third-person perspective that Lewis was able to come to terms with some of the baggage of his past. The song tells the story of a family torn by divorce, separated by adoption, and displaced multiple times by moving. It’s soul-wrenchingly transparent, and serves as an important introduction to Lewis and his music.
“It was an exercise that was never intended to be shared,” Lewis says. “I thought I would bounce it off some folks, and I got some good feedback and it kind of evolved and made its way into a studio and onto an album.”
It’s just one prime example of Lewis’ honest lyrical inquiries into the pillars of human hardship, among which are others familiar to Southern music: heartbreak, the passage of time, and unshakeable wanderlust.
“There are a lot of things that are hard to talk about. It’s hard to talk about divorce, it’s hard to talk about adoption, it’s hard to talk about all sorts of things that I think have become the norm for children growing up. It took me a long time to understand it, I guess, or accept it,” Lewis says. “But a lot of those are just, in a weird way, therapy sessions that I was fortunate enough to make into the creative process and share them with people who really like them. And that’s the craziest part-that they’re all universal.”
Lewis’s lyrics and arrangements have some universal appeal, though not in the crassly commercial sense of modern pop-country. The straightforward authenticity of his lyrics are rooted in exposure to some of the past century’s best songwriters. Despite his splintered family history, he recalls being exposed to everyone from Roy Orbison to Carl Perkins, from golden oldies to Motown. But, like many musicians, he was a teenager when he discovered the songwriters that pushed him to take a stab at the craft himself.
“I think when I really started tapping into Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Leon Russell and those kind of guys, it struck a different chord with me and made me actually want to try to write some great shit too,” Lewis says.
As with any art, it took him a number of tries before he felt like he was realizing his potential, but he had a good batch of influences as guidance. He mentions John Prine, Fred Eaglesmith and Malcolm Holcombe among his heroes.
His ever-maturing songwriting and, as he admits, a little healthy arrogance led him to move to Nashville in 2009 to connect with other musicians. Like other musical pilgrims before him, he was drawn to the city’s formidable musical history.
“I think half of winding up there is by sheer will, and it kind of has a vacuum power to it. I kind of go with the wind, and it was blowing really hard around that time,” Lewis says. “I thought, living in Knoxville, which is so close, if I’m going to do this, I had better go ahead and do it now.”
But Lewis didn’t come to Nashville to break into mainstream country. He is wary of that industry’s power to corrupt artists — to chew them up and spit them out.
“You show up with your bags, you take your heart and you put it in your ass and you take your soul and put it on the table and say, ‘Where do I sign?’ It’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Lewis says. “It’s hard when you have to let a town define you, and I’ll never let a town do that to me.”
If his debut is any indication, Lewis may have a future ahead of him sheerly because of his unwillingness to compromise, and his ability to relate to the people around him.
“I think I’m growing and will constantly grow, and I just want to be able to say and do what I believe,” Lewis says. “If I don’t believe it, then I don’t expect anyone else to believe it either.”
who: Sam Lewis
where: The Isis Restaurant and Music Hall
when: Thursday, Aug. 29 ($8 / $10. Seating is limited, so dinner reservations are recommended. For more information, call 575-2737 or visit www.isisasheville.com.)