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Jesse Jack Sample chases dream with 'King of the Plains'

Denise Grays

Toronto, Kansas-based musician Jesse Jack Sample has a new album out. Titled "King of the Plains," the record was partially inspired by Sample's move from the urban to the rural.

Jesse Jack Sample's "King of the Plains" finds the Toronto, Kansas-based singer-songwriter in fine form. The album opens with the eerie, ethereal titular track, a haunted and haunting ballad that speaks to Sample's abilities as a vocalist as he inhabits a world both familiar and peculiar.

Elsewhere, he pays respects to lost love ("I Don't Think About You"), his late mother ("Take Me Home") and finds time to celebrate the rewards of sustained romance ("Extras," "Permanence of You"). It's a succinct set of songs, clocking in just over the half-hour mark but providing the listener with a series of powerful emotional experiences that resonate long after the last notes have faded.

It's been quite a road to this album.

Sample cut his musical teeth in the Wichita rock scene, then paused to raise a family and live a quieter life than one afforded by overdriven amps and loud rock clubs. In recent years he's found himself living in Toronto, a place more in tune with the country sounds heard on "King of the Plains." He's so deep in the country, in fact, that he had to drive a short distance from his home to make sure he had proper cell phone reception for our conversation.

For a time he operated a bait shop/music venue in Toronto, though it became difficult to sustain in a small town. His friends and neighbors have been enthusiastic, he notes, though building an audience well outside an urban center has provided its challenges.

"The people who have taken the time to listen have been supportive," he notes, remaining hopeful that gigs at home and in places such as Wichita will bring him a wider audience.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

I know you primarily as a rock artist, so "King of the Plains" came as a surprise to me, direction-wise.

My mom and dad played music when we were kids growing up. They played bluegrass, gospel, country music and my dad has written songs for as long as I can remember. That's the influence I have for songwriting and the style of music that I play.

I detect a fair amount of soul influence in there too.

Really? I guess I don't realize that. I do like music like that, but I listen to everything. I don't know where all the influences come from for music. But sometimes you have to be open to the idea of being open. It feels like an outside force sometimes that comes and you grab ahold of when you're writing. You've got to let it flow through you more than force it out.

There are some songs that I've written, like "Take Me Home," on the album, which was about my mom passing away. I felt like it wrote itself. It happened in 15 minutes, it just poured out. Those are the ones that I really like. It's just such a cool feeling to be able to let that flow through you and exorcize some demons.

Your mom must have been proud of you as she saw you grow up, start playing music, and write your own songs.

My mom passed away a couple of years ago from ALS. I would go over to her house and play songs for her. These were songs that I was working on for the album, some of them didn't make the album but some of them did. "Take Me Home" was written after she had passed but I'm sure she's looking down on it and feeling very proud. I'm sure of it. The album is dedicated to her.

Had some of this writing on the acoustic guitar happened because you'd moved out to Toronto, where things are kind of quieter? Were you inspired to play more acoustic stuff out there as opposed to the city where it's noisier and maybe more rock 'n' roll?

[Laughs.] I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. It's funny, when I was raising my kids and stuff I didn't play guitar too much. After I left [the] rock 'n' roll band I was playing with back in the day, I kind of hung it up. For a long time. I'd pick up an acoustic guitar here and there. But I sold all my electric gear.

I came out here four or five years ago and opened a bait shop with a music venue for a while. I'm glad I did that because it not only introduced me to some good people but it opened some time up where I would sit and play guitar in my idle hours. There's where all this started, like you say, just having the time to get back into it and reflect on things or just being open to the idea of songs.

I met Jessie Hoag [out here]. She and her husband Drew own a lumberyard across the street from the bait shop that I owned. She writes poetry and I asked if I could read some of it and so some of the songs on the album come from poems that she'd written. Sometimes we just used pieces of them or ideas from them. "Extras" is one that was written by her, lyrically. There are a few others on there: "King of the Plains," "Permanence of You." Without having experience out here, with just being in the area and having the time [to write and play], meeting the people that I've met, I don't think that I would have ever written an album.

It was just a goal I set. I said, "I want to write an album" and record an album and release it. I just chased it down until I got there.

I know that there can be a lot of frustrations in that process, that process of making a record, especially if you're doing other things. Did you have periods where you were wondering, "Gosh, am I ever going to get this finished?"

[Laughs.] Lots of periods like that. It took almost two years to write and record until I had a physical copy of an album in my hands. It seemed like there were all kinds of roadblocks — financially and otherwise — but at the same time, I had a lot of support from people in Toronto. I've played some shows up at Getty's in town; I played there a few times and raised money for my album and they were gracious enough to support it.

But it's like anybody else with a dream that you chase, you spend some of your own money on it, so there were a lot of times where I didn't know if it was actually going to happen or not. When I made it to the studio and started working with Carter Green in Wellington, it was really nice working with him.

I could go in there with just me and an acoustic [guitar] and lay that down and then show him sketches of stuff that I'd done at my home studio — I could say, "I want strings on this one," or, "I want lead guitar right here." The thing that was nice about that was that Carter could play almost every instrument, other than what I was doing.

How did "King of the Plains" wind up being the title tune for the LP?

"King of the Plains" was such a crazy thing. I had played all night at Getty's one night. I came home and the next morning I woke up and went to put a pan on the stove for breakfast. I grabbed this heavy pan and something in my wrist popped — in my left wrist. So I then found out that there was something in my tendon that had messed up. I ended up in a cast.

I had booked my studio day and I was a week away from going into the studio to start recording this album and I ended up in a cast on my left arm. So I couldn't play guitar for a while. Then I started getting so hard up to play guitar that I ended up just laying it flat down on my lap and started playing it like that. That's how I wrote "King of the Plains," was laying [the guitar] down on my lap like that. I don't think that that song would have ever been written if it hadn't been for all of that happening.

I was driving down the road one day and heard a King of Freight commercial or something like that. It's real pretty out here and I thought, "King of the plains, that'd be a cool song." I kept it in my mind and talked to Jessie about it and we got together on it. I came up with a chorus line and then we made a list of words that would lend themselves to that song.

As far as it being the title track of the album, I just thought that it was a pretty strong song. It had a good feel to it. If I think about my musical style I think that pretty much sums it up. I thought "King of the Plains" would be a good fit for where I live and the music I play.

"United States" is slightly different than the other material on the lyrical front.

I'm not super political. I just don't feel like I'm that guy at all. But, at the same time, I am American and I feel like so much of our country has changed for the worse. In a lot of ways. In a lot of ways, it's gotten a lot better. It's just finding the balance in life, I think, is the key. I think that song speaks to the balance that people are searching for in today's society. In their lives. The difference between love and money and the balance of that — trying to work and provide for your kids, have time for your family. It's so much. If we could go back to some simpler times or just have life slow down a little bit and [come to a place where we could] just dream again as people. And chasing dreams —like this album, it was a dream of mine to do, so I just chased that dream.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.