A summer homecoming for Gordie Sampson

Even in the middle of one of his busiest years, Gordie Sampson can always make time for Cape Breton.

The fringe benefit for fans of the Nashville-based songwriter is that his annual pilgrimage home to host his summer song camp in Ingonish also means he’ll set aside a few days for shows around the Maritimes in July, when he can share some of his latest compositions and stories of his recent Tennessee adventures.

And with his name on tunes for Dierks Bentley — his current single Bourbon in Kentucky — Hunter Hayes, finalists from American Idol and The Voice and the new Keith Urban album Fuse, possibly dropping on Sept. 10, the past several months decidedly go into the plus column.

“This year has been really good, really exciting,” says Sampson, chilling with an iced tea in the backroom at the Carleton, where he performs on July 16.

“With what I do, the peaks and valleys are just incredible. You can go for a year, maybe two, with very little activity and then it will just kind of come, boom, boom, boom, and you’ll be like, ‘Whoa, WHOA, WOW!’

“And then it goes away again for another year or so. There really isn’t much rhyme or reason to it. Not to over analyze things, but I guess you just get in the zone once in a while, and you’ve gotta wait for your turn to bat.”

At the time of our conversation, Sampson is still riding a bit of a high after playing a couple of nights earlier with the Boston Pops, as part of a concert titled Music City Hit-makers. He performed with his frequent collaborators Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey, plus Brent James and members of Taylor Swift’s band.

Despite groaning at the name Music City Hit-makers, Sampson says he’s enjoyed doing a handful of symphony shows so far.

The trio of songwriters tries to avoid descending to the cheesy level of, “Hey, we’re the people behind this one” or “You might know this one from,” during those events.

But maybe “enjoyed” is too mild a word to describe his recent experience in Boston.

“It was completely off the hook, just amazing, playing with the most famous orchestra in the world,” he says, still trying to believe that it really happened.

“The only depressing part of that gig was thinking, ‘Where do we go from here? How are we ever going to get to do this gig again with the Boston symphony?’

“There’s just something about the brass and the horns, when they’re played by musicians that good. It can be so hard to keep them in tune and get them to swing, but this is a pop orchestra, and you can’t get in there unless you swing like a monkey, and you can tell.”

The next time the Big Pond native walks onto a stage will be at Keltic Lodge’s Ceilidh Hall in Ingonish on Thursday, when he hosts the Gordie Sampson Songcamp Circle, featuring the talent assembled at his annual gathering of fledgling, up-and-coming and seasoned songwriters.

Aside from just wanting to get out of the Nashville heat, the camp is a powerful part of the magnet that draws him home each summer.

Now in its fourth year, he calls it a big part of his life.

He looks forward all year long to meeting new talent and reuniting with those who’ve come up through the ranks. Young musicians who are mutating into senior camp counsellors include Mo Kenney.

“She’s just blowing up,” he says of the Waverley songwriter recently ranked in the top five of the SOCAN Songwriting Contest.

Also included are Carleton Stone, Molly Thomason and Dylan Guthro.

“We’re going to lose them soon because they’ll be too busy and too rich to come back,” he laughs.

“But we’ll always still have them because we want to make sure that everybody’s getting those skills developed, and we spend a lot of time on what’s going to happen next.

“It could very easily become a community that depends on its own members, who can do unstoppable things. It’s been really fun to watch, and now in Year 4 we’re getting the proof.

“A lot of the songs that came out of the camp have been on the radio, a couple have been in the Top 10, and Carleton’s done a new record with songs he’s written with people he’s met at the camp. This is getting fun now.”

After the song camp wraps up, Sampson heads to P.E.I. for two nights at Mount Stewart’s Trailside Cafe on July 5 and 6. Then it’s back to the mainland to play Berwick’s Union Street Cafe on July 13, Halifax’s the Carleton on July 16 and a duo show at Truro’s Split Crow on July 20.

For the final lap around Cape Breton, Sampson plays a trio show at the Louisbourg Playhouse on July 27 and joins the traditional day-long Broad Cove Concert on July 28.

Then it’s back to the States, where he picks up where he left off, teaming up with musicians like multiple Grammy Award nominee Hayes, whose been playing music practically since he could walk, and who appeared at Canso’s Stan Rogers Folk Festival when his age was barely into the double digits.

Sampson co-wrote Hayes’ first single Storm Warning (“That was an idea I got in Ingonish, staring out at the waves,” he recalls), and this year the Louisiana native was nominated for three Grammys.

One of them was for best country solo performance for Wanted, which he co-wrote with Sampson’s pal Verges.

“I went out and wrote on the road with Hunter for a few days recently. He opened for the Carrie Underwood tour, so I just hopped on his tour bus for a few days and we wrote six songs,” says Sampson.

“He’s amazingly talented, he’s very similar to someone like John Mayer who, above all else, has a musicality that there’s a lot of respect for. Keith Urban has that going on to. They’re the real musical guys.

“Guys like Toby Keith or Tim McGraw don’t have the same thing, these are music first guys. They know all the chords, they can do whatever they put their mind to. J.P. Cormier’s the same way. Musical Swiss Army knives.

“It’s nice to know that the cream still rises to the top in this part of the music industry. That hasn’t changed in my lifetime, and it’s fun to see happen.”

by Stephen Cooke, The Chronicle Herald