Carter Sampson finds more than luck on her new album
On the cover of her new album, Lucky, Carter Sampson looks a lot like her nickname, “The Queen of Oklahoma.” She’s sitting up straight with her legs crossed in jewel-studded red cowboy boots, a brown suede fringe jack—a black Stetson hat set back on her head, framing a wistful half-smile. In the painting, made by her brother (Stuart Sampson) she’s holding a golden horseshoe between her fingers like a talisman. She looks comfortable in her royal role.
With the release of Lucky, Carter Sampson’s fifth studio album on Horton Records, Sampson cements her status as a songwriter to watch in Oklahoma.
Sampson is a fifth-generation Okie from a musical family. Her dad plays guitar, and her mom sings in the church choir. Her grandmother taught piano lessons, but it wasn’t until Sampson auditioned for 8th grade choir and didn’t make the cut that she picked up a guitar.
“I’m really grateful for that because for a lot of people the opposite happens after a rejection,” she said. “They don't ever sing again. They don’t ever pursue their passion or the thing that they love and maybe the thing they’re not very good at. I probably wasn’t very good at the time, but I had to get there some way.”
Her professional path began at music business school in Oklahoma City, before she dropped out and moved to Boston. She learned to perform there from hours of busking on the subway. “I could literally play the same four songs over and over. Every ten minutes there’d be a new audience when the next train came,” she said. “For the last four or five years I’ve played over 200 shows a year. So I really learned to play by performing.”
Lucky is an album that celebrates this counterintuitive journey. Sonically, the record combines Sampson’s Oklahoma musical roots with a singer-songwriter aesthetic reminiscent of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, and even the late 60’s rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers. These songs are steeped in the mixed rock-and-country tone of California country music, but it’s the Oklahoma players who really define the sound.
“I recorded the album with my buddy Jason Scott who through this process has become like my brother and one of my best friends,” Sampson said. “We started working in October of last year. I had written a lot of the songs last summer when I was on tour in Colorado. Jason and I went back to Colorado and spent like 11 hours one day just polishing the songs.” They finished the album at Scott’s house in Moore. To fill out her studio backing band, Sampson called on a host of notable Oklahoma musicians.
“Kyle Reed plays pedal steel in my band and is all over this album. Jared Tyler is one of my favorite Oklahoma musicians. John Calvin Abney played on it as well. Jack Waters is playing drums and James Purdy played a lot of drums on the album as well. Luke Mullenax was also playing electric bass and upright bass,” she said. Sampson also covers a song by Tulsa songwriter Kalyn Fay and a song from Oklahoma City artist Zac Copeland.
The focused performances on Lucky are matched by the natural quality of Sampson’s writing and voice. Many of the hooks feel effortless, and there’s an honest portrait of an artist who’s finally feeling complete. “I think this album comes from a lot of gratitude. The last two years have been really good and really crazy,” she said. “My last record, Wilder Side, really took off in Europe, and I did eight European tours in about a year and a half. These songs were me kind of stepping back from all that traveling and craziness and realizing how lucky I am to get to do exactly what I want to do.”
Carter Sampson has reached a moment in her musical career where she can reflect on her life and still give back to the place where she grew up. Sampson helped found and directs Oklahoma City’s Rock & Roll Camp for Girls where she teaches 8-to-18-year-old girls to play music.
“In 2006, I volunteered at this music school in Portland and I got to teach nine-year-old girls to play electric guitar, and it was such a magical thing,” she said. “The whole time I was thinking how much my life would have different if I had something like that in Oklahoma. I think I took, like, four guitar lessons when I was in high school from this hunky greasy-haired dude who wanted me to learn to Metallica songs. To have a space where you can just be around other like-minded girls and women and play music and be supported like these girls were being was just such a cool idea to me.”
Lucky is an album about a woman who loves her life, and who’s lived past enough to unhappiness to understand why. But as Sampson’s history of working hard and providing opportunities for others shows, there’s a whole lot more to it than luck.