“Forget his face? Of course I don’t,” Sam Baker sings, of a young German boy who died along with his parents on a train in Peru in 1986.
The three had been sitting on facing seats and the bomb that killed them was in the luggage rack above their heads, set by Shining Path guerrillas.
The man in the fourth seat was Baker.
The song probes the psychological legacy for Baker, who had been talking to the boy before the bomb went off. Its title, “Broken Fingers,” reveals part of the physical legacy — three twisted, unusable fingers that forced him to relearn to play the guitar left-handed.
That he survived at all is remarkable: The explosion severed the main artery and vein in his left thigh and he almost bled to death. He suffered brain damage, kidney failure, gangrene and severe hearing loss, and went through years of surgery.
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of Baker’s story: He is making a name for himself as one of the most original new singer-songwriters in contemporary folk music.
Before the bombing, the native of Itasca, Texas, had been a whitewater river guide who enjoyed traveling, walking and climbing. That all ended in a moment.
“Every day for a long time was like being in some kind of fog. There was a reasonable amount of pain and a lack of clarity and a whole lot of pain meds, and because my hands were bandaged I couldn’t really feel anything, couldn’t walk and couldn’t really hear much. There was a sense of isolation,” said Baker, 54, in an interview in a hotel in Kilkenny, where he was appearing at a music festival.
Music chose Baker
Becoming a singer-songwriter was not the obvious career choice for a man with mangled fingers, partial deafness, balance problems, brain damage that sometimes leaves him struggling for the right word, and a constant ringing in his head — the thing he says that has been the hardest to deal with.
Baker’s spare storytelling is delivered in a rasping voice. He describes himself as “the worst guitarist who ever stood on a public stage,” and requests from the audience have to be relayed by those in the front rows because he can’t hear anything shouted from further back.
But creating music was not, he says, a choice.
“For a long time I wanted to understand what had happened and what had happened to those I was sitting around and be able to write that in a way that made sense to me, so I could clear up that moment of chaos and fear,” he said.
“While I was doing that, melodies would come and they would be like a cardinal, a very bright red bird that flies against the window, saying, ‘Pay attention to me. Pay attention to the melody. Look at my red wings, listen to the melody.’ I don’t think I could ignore it.”
Although Baker, who’s now based in Austin, Texas, has written directly about his experiences, most of his songs are about other lives: a man finds himself alone after 50 years of marriage; an abandoned woman with two babies drives the interstate; another woman spends her time playing slot machines; the son of a Texas oil baron lives a privileged but ultimately ruined life.
“All those people and all those sounds, it’s like a village or a small town, they all come from the same place. They might all end up at the same pub on a Wednesday night,” Baker says.
“Where I move into someone else’s world, I think that probably came from those days of not being able to move,” he says.
“If you are in a hospital, especially in the ICU, there is so much drama and it is a profound drama, it’s life and death. People are wheeled in and then people are wheeled out. While I was in that place I think I absorbed a lot more than I probably can articulate.”
‘The songs are short films playing in his head’
Baker made his first album, “Mercy,” in 2004 as an attempt to “do one good piece of art.” It received no promotion, but was heard and played by some radio stations in Texas.
Then a copy made its way to influential British disc jockey Bob Harris, who played it on his national radio show. The reaction was almost immediate. Baker tells how he woke up one morning and found that his CDs had sold out. He made a second album, “Pretty World,” in 2007.
The success of Baker’s strongly Texas-oriented music in Europe has led to Baker spending long periods of time here in recent months. His two shows at the Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival were sellouts.
He returns to North America to play the Woody Guthrie Festival in Oklahoma and the Calgary Folk Festival before returning to Europe in August to headline an Americana festival, followed by a more extensive tour of Britain, France and the Netherlands.
The future, he says, is something that will work itself out, and although he’s written more than enough new songs, the next album is not yet in the works.
“I have lots of material so I have to get it in a place where once again we might expect all those people at the same pub on a Wednesday night. I will know when the time is right. The characters sort of let me know when they need to be voiced, how they want their stories to come out,” he says.
Asked to describe himself, Baker says simply that he is “pretty happy.”
And though he doesn’t deny that his music comes from one moment, on a train in Peru more than 20 years ago, he says fundamentally he is no different from anyone else.
“I think in many ways everybody is a survivor, it’s just a little bit more obvious in my case.”
“Everybody has been knocked back, and for the most part, you know what people do? They keep going,” he says. “And most people do it with grace and humor and goodwill and a spirit of generosity. Those are the people at the pub.”