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Pretty tough

Songwriter Samantha Crain crushes the status quo

Samantha Crain // Photo by Dakota Lewallen

“Whatever gets me a paycheck and lets me be able to record an album.”

It’s not a glamorous mantra, but it’s served Oklahoma City folk artist Samantha Crain pretty well thus far. 

Crain’s soulful drawl and pension for picking has captured the ears of Rolling Stone, NPR and Paste—and she’ll promptly destroy you in the best way possible when you first see her live. With three full-length albums and two abbreviated records under her belt, Crain hits the road again in May in the lead-up to her fourth studio release, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree (set to drop in July). In the meantime, catch her April 30 at the Woody Guthrie Center anniversary show at Cain’s Ballroom and May 1-2 at the inaugural Queen of the Prairie Festival in Guthrie. She’s sharing the festival bill with JD McPherson, Parker Millsap and Valerie June, among others (see p.28 for more information). 

A Shawnee native of Choctaw heritage, Crain has deep roots in the Oklahoma terrain, and they’re laid bare in her work. Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is a patchwork of Crain’s friends, acquaintances and experiences and yet another example of her deft storytelling. Whether diving into the day-to-day grind or capturing the pull of small-town Oklahoma, Crain’s lyricism and ambitious social commentary craft powerful snapshots of her subjects. A testament to her talent and voice as a writer, it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction within her lyrics, and the listener buy-in is all there on the new release. 

“A lot of them are my own words, my own stories,” Crain said. “And there’s a lot of characters that are friends of mine or family members of mine, or people I’ve met in my travels, or people that I work with.” 

There’s a hot, arid feel to many of the tunes on the record, which has a remarkable balance of succinct simplicity and vivid emotion. Crain’s voice ambles and spreads like the rolling Oklahoma landscape. 

“Elk City” describes a downtrodden woman stuck in Oklahoma that Crain met traveling. “When You Come Back” is the heartbroken plea of a woman on the lonely end of a breakup. Several people in her life inspired the frantic “Kathleen.” The project is an ode to the working class, and Crain identifies with that demographic. To power her records and tours, she’s held down jobs welding, waiting tables, working on farms and restocking libraries.

“The majority of people in this world are working those sort of lower working class, blue collar jobs all the time,” she said. “So the point of this album was really just to lend a voice to them, to me, to my friends and family.”

VIDEO: Samantha Crain plays "Somewhere All the Time" Feb. 8, 2015 for the Folk Alliance Fundraiser at the Woody Guthrie Center.

With lyrics like “woman step down unless you’re singing a song to me” (from “Killer,” an underdog’s battle cry inspired by the Occupy movement), Crain unapologetically calls out backwardness and marginalization in society. 

Last spring, Christina Fallin—daughter of Gov. Mary Fallin—released a photo of herself in a Native American headdress. An earned sign of honor and respect, headdresses are restricted items used in some Native communities. They’ve also become a target of cultural appropriation as a cringe-worthy accessory at music festivals. Rather than apologize for her thoughtlessness, Fallin announced via social media that Pink Pony—the band she fronts with Steven Battles—would perform in ‘full regalia’ at the Norman Music Festival. Crain quickly organized a silent protest for the band’s performance. 

Songwriters, journalists and others stood peacefully at the show with signs reading, “I am not a costume,” and, “Don’t tread on my culture.” While her entourage poked fun at protestors from the stage, Fallin performed a mocking tribal dance of sorts.

Still, Crain prefers to let her melodic storytelling do the bullshit calling. 

“Another big focus of the record was to find a way to do protest songs without them being literal protest songs,” she said. “Just let the voices and the characters, the people within the songs, kind of speak as loud as protest songs would.” 

And though the working class is at the heart of the record, women are its backbone. 

Photo by Sebastiaan Petiet“It’s taken me a while to really understand the position of women in this country,” she said. “Mainly because I was raised to be tough ... not everybody has that personality trait as part of their disposition.”

Unfortunately, the wordsmith needn’t dig to find inspiration for her pointed lyrics; even the music scene in Oklahoma has its thorns. As most adult women can attest; not everyone is eager to celebrate women in music (or any other field) mastering their craft. 

“I’ve had instances where sound guys have completely messed with my sound because I threw some vaguely technical term out at them at the beginning of the show, and their masculinity was harmed or something,” Crain said. “They couldn’t deal with that and were just being a jerk. I mean, it happens.”

Despite her self-described ‘kid face’ (which inspired the title track of her previous album), it’s unsurprising that people would feel threatened by Crain’s raw talent and powerful presence. She considers herself a songwriter above all else. And in an age when artists rely heavily on the support of illusions—sound editing, retouching and hyper-sexualization—she’s a breath of fresh air. 

Crain said the preference for female-produced art to be visually appealing or sexy undercuts raw talent.

“There’s a big problem with women in music who don’t display any sort of sexuality, and I guess I’ve just been that kind of person throughout my career,” she said. “The music that I’ve made has always come first.” 

Lucky for us, it’s not stopping her. 

“I’ve just kind of bypassed any of the female sexuality just because it never seemed relevant to what I was doing. And I think that’s probably hindered me a lot in the world we live in, and that’s too bad.” 

Queen of the Prairie Music & Camping Festival 

May 1-2 // Cottonwood Flats, Guthrie // All ages // $150 for 2-day pass; tickets at queenoftheprairie.com // Camp all weekend for $30

After its founding in 1889, Guthrie, Oklahoma was nicknamed Queen of the Prairie. The first weekend in May, Queen of the Prairie Music & Camping Festival will grace the historic city for the first time. 

The Gentlemen of the Road Tour in 2013 demonstrated that Guthrie could sustain crowds in the thousands, and the city is now positioning itself as one of the state’s tourism and music destinations. 

Organized by small business owners Christie and Shirley Clifford, the festival will combine elements of Guthrie with touches from other cities, including booths by boutiques and Guthrie vendors (like Christie’s own Prairie Gothic) a fashion show hosted by Guthrie’s Boutique 206, entertainment from area musicians, late-night dance parties courtesy of Electric Western, a BBQ contest and food from the Andolini’s Pizzeria Food Truck and OKC-based MOB Grill.

This is the first festival the organizers have put together, but their scrappy DIY approach and attention to detail is already paying off.

“I really appreciate what the girls over at Prairie Gothic [the festival organizers] have been doing,” Samantha Crain said. “They’re bringing a lot of good music to Guthrie.”

JD McPherson will headline the event. In addition to Crain, don’t miss these highlights: 

Valerie June: A bluesy roots singer with a distinctive backcountry slur. Add in some big band brass instruments and slight dose of doo-wop, and you’ve got Valerie June. 

Lera Lynn: A Nashville-based, old soul songstress responsible for a killer cover of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” and the theme song to the new “True Detective” trailer that has everyone Googling for her name. 

Parker Millsap: Okie native juggling the guitar and harmonica in between gospel-y wails and Elvis-y warbles. Check out his Grand Ol’ Opry taping for a preview. 

For more musician interviews from Megan Shepherd, check out her chats with members of the Wood Brothers and The War on Drugs.