THE BACK PAGES

Nashville hires a new hit man

A Cape Breton songwriter is churning out singles for the likes of Faith Hill

SHANDA DEZIEL April 10 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Nashville hires a new hit man

A Cape Breton songwriter is churning out singles for the likes of Faith Hill

SHANDA DEZIEL April 10 2006

Nashville hires a new hit man

A Cape Breton songwriter is churning out singles for the likes of Faith Hill

SHANDA DEZIEL

music

Everyone’s got an embarrassing story; Gordie Sampson’s just happened to take place on The Rita MacNeil Show. At 24, the singer/songwriter/guitarist had his first real money-making gig, as a member of MacNeil’s TV house band. “One show, [country singer] Carroll Baker and Rita were doing a duet of Hey Good Lookin’,” says Sampson. “It was schlocky, schlocky—and the producer asked me if I’d run up with a wireless guitar and split them up and do a solo. I was like, T can’t, if the guys see this Tm f—ed.’ But I couldn’t get out of it. I ran out and, my God, Carroll Baker was pinching my ass as I’m doing the solo. At least it was behind the camera, so you couldn’t see it.”

These days, Sampson, now 34, still pals around with country singers. The Cape Bretoner has a modest pop career in Canada, highlighted by 2004’s radio-friendly album, Sunburn. But in September he moved to Nashville with his wife and baby daughter, after a few of his songs were recorded by the likes of Keith Urban (The Ha?-d Way), Faith Hill (Paris) and George Canyon. Soon after, Jesus, Take the Wheel, a song he co-wrote for the debut album of American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, topped the Billboard Country Singles Chart for six weeks. “I got the idea for the song from something my aunt told me when I was a kid,” explains Sampson. “One time, she started spinning around in the car and she put her hands in the air and asked God to drive.”

Despite never having had an interest in new country music, Sampson, who grew up on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Pink Floyd, seems happily ensconced in Music City. “My dynamic in Nashville is so far removed from the formula of the writer in the cubicle in some office building,” he says. “I don’t really have the energy to write 100 songs and wait for one to be a hit. Instead, we get six-packs of beer

and sit on my porch and write.” Sampson’s fresh approach carries over into the content of the songs. He eschews the simple stories and clichés of bravado and heartbreak typically associated with the genre. “I’m not going to tell you a story,” he says. “I’m just going to deal you a couple of cards and you can look at your own hand and make up your own.” That’s what happened with Paris —a song about him and his co-writers getting mugged in France. “I never pitched it to anybody, thinking, ‘Who the hell in country music is going to record a song about getting punched in the head in Paris?’ That’s just weird. But

It was a song about being punched in the head in Paris. Faith Hill interpreted it as a love song.

Faith Hill interpreted it as a love song.”

This ambiguous writing style is winning him some well-placed fans. Australian country star Urban has recorded two of Sampson’s songs, and took him along on a Canadian tour last year as the opening act. Fast month, the two spent three days together writing songs for a new album at Urban’s Nashville home—which has its perks. “Nicole Kidman lives with him now,” says Sampson. “I pulled up to the gate, and she said, ‘Gordie, I hope you like corned beef.’ And I was like, T f—ing love corned beef.’ ” According to Sampson, Kidman likes Nashville, thanks to

its “gurm”-ffee policy. “Gurming is when you walk into a room and see Steve Earle sitting by himself having a beer and relaxing and you go right over and say, ‘Hey Steve, I love you’—instead of just leaving him alone. It’s just protocol in town, when you see Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, nobody bothers them. She goes jogging in the park. She could never do that in New York or F.A.”

Sampson’s learning to love Nashville too, although he’s anxious to get back to Cape Breton for the summer. The writing cycle is broken up like school semesters—he works from September to May and takes the summer off while the artists are out touring. This way he can make time for his own recording career. Fast month he played a rare solo show during the “school year,” at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. He was hoping to capitalize a bit on all the attention he’s been getting from Underwood’s hit song. The gig went well, but was also a reminder of the insanity of life on the road. After his showcase and a full night of partying, Sampson returned to his hotel room and found two strangers getting amorous in his bed. Not wanting to disturb them and a little too drunk to care, he grabbed a sheet and crashed on a secluded patch of grass outside of the hotel, close to the highway, in the pouring rain. The next morning, on very little sleep, he headed back to his day job in Nashville, with a funny story to tell—one that just might end up on Faith Hill’s next album. M