Photo: ©2009 S. L. Bauer
WHEN I WAS A KID -
The only things anyone in the family
owned of value were musical instruments.
Just over the Mason Dixon line, surrounded by steel mills and gospel music, Samuel Saint Thomas formed an artistic disposition early. “Without TV or other worldly devices, musical instruments were the only things we owned of any value,” he says. “Everyone in the family had one.” His late father had pianos. Four of them. His mother played tambourine and grew up singing and dancing to jigs in Irish pubs. His sister sang harmonies, played trumpet and collected country and western 45s. When Samuel was 10, his father said, “You’ll never make a piano player,” and marched him into the store for an upright bass. “I couldn’t reach the low notes without standing on a stack of hymnals,” Samuel says. A Silvertone electric guitar was his second instrument.
The family drove their hellfire admonitions and music around the country to sawdust revivals, camp meetings, and crusades in a red Ford Econoline van, bent on saving alcoholics, whores, and gays from damnation. “My father told his story to anyone who would listen,” he says, “how he gave up the lights of Broadway and playing the devil’s music for Jesus.” His father was a jazz kat in the forties, and a protégé of the late Otto Cezana. Swing was hitting its stride as his band, The Kings of Rhythm, played behind chicken wire from the caverns of New York to the coal dust dance halls of Scranton, PA.
As it was the only way to leave home, Samuel entered Pentecostal seminary at seventeen. A year later, he dropped out to launch a supper club in Philadelphia, booking national Christian rock acts Petra, Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, John Michael Talbot, Elvis Presley’s band The Imperials and others. Five years later, he withdrew to a remote hermitage in the Appalachians to study, chop wood, and contemplate. There he stumbled on the ideas of Asceticism and St. Francis. “I’d heard of the changes monk and musician John Michael Talbot was experiencing,” he says, “so I wrote. He invited me to Indianapolis.” What was to be a curious Greyhound ride ended up a much longer journey.
Samuel was soon contributing to the foundation of a Catholic monastic community ultimately based in Eureka Springs, AK, living a quiet life of writing, studies, and plain chant. As national interest in the community and Talbot grew, he traveled to jungle villages in Honduras, the sacred sites of Europe, and cities across the U.S. with Talbot, teaching and raising awareness and relief for the developing world, eventually meeting Pope John Paul II.
“What it seemed it was at first, though,” he says, “was not exactly what it was.” Dining with cardinals, bishops, and other luminaries was compelling. The adulation of the followers was addicting too. “So it took several years to see through the scrim. By then I’d taken religious vows and was raising lots of money for hungry children with worm-bloated stomachs living in shacks, yet I was experiencing the comfort, cuisine, and transportation of a rock star. I was living a theatrical poverty, all the while becoming more and more sexually and intellectually claustrophobic. But I had to stay in character. I had surely become delusional.”
Realization of this uncanny mix of luxury and denial led to an existential discovery. “It was a fleshly coming out,” he says. “I didn’t know it then, but I was shedding decades of unfounded religious notions, the kind of absurd thinking that Kierkegaard speaks of, the kind of faith that made me sensually dead.” Asked to resign, he ditched the brown habit, the chant, prayer book and all. But to de-convert was severe. “My monastic friends considered me a reprobate, destined for damnation.” He ended alone and truly poor.
On leaving religious life, he bought one pair of Levis. He drove to the Martin factory and bought a blemished black flat-top with all the money he had to his name. He started writing songs, recording on a Tascam 4-track in his bedroom and looking for new friends. Leaving the familiarity, peace, and security of monastic life, juxtaposed with launching a career as a singer-songwriter in a sensuous world was both onerous and exhilarating. “An adventure with all the sting and thrill of a first time,” he says, “a virgin to a carnal mind.”
Samuel was fortunate to meet some great folks, mostly from being a nuisance until they’d let him on stage. After three years of writing songs and dragging his guitar around, he began recording in a windowless one-car garage in New Jersey with Tim Carbone. The result ended as the sound track of Mir In My Sky: Mystic Journey for Peace to Yugoslavia (1994), a documentary of a war-ravaged country. Samuel produced, directed, edited, and marketed the documentary.
Soon Samuel shared projects, stages, and studios with such nationally-known artists as classical conductor Enrique Arturo Diemecke, Minnesota Choral, drummer George Roscelli (Bob Dylan), Alejandro Escovedo, alt-country guitarist Neil Casal (Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams), singer Kathleen Webber (David Bromberg), the late blues guitarist Cesar Diaz (Bob Dylan), violinist Timothy Carbone and multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling (Railroad Earth, Phil Lesh) and many others. In ’95 he launched A.D. West Recording Studio and Eclipso Records, releasing the rare hick-pop CD, Saweeet, with fifteen year old Krista Long, the late Cesar Diaz (Bob Dylan), Timothy Carbone, members of Solution A.D. and others.
Late in ’96, he assembled a stellar cast of players for his freshmen solo project, Unfortunate Adventures of a Naked Mystic. Neil Casal, Cesar Diaz, Timothy Carbone, and others contributed. Each track was to be a chapter in his painful yet pleasurable evolution from mystic to carnal man. A colorful array of classic Americana guitar and amp sounds, world rhythms, and plenty of surprises, the disc produced a flurry of regional airplay, college performances, and touring from Greenwich Village to Woodstock, and festivals from Waterloo Village to SXSW. Still, despite never having made its way to a larger audience, Unfortunate Adventures of a Naked Mystic continues to garner compliments from industry veterans and musicians alike.
Taking a rest from music, in 2000 Samuel renewed his scholarly interests earning both a Philosophy and English BA. He took his graduate work at Fairleigh Dickinson University, NJ, and in the UK at Wroxton College, where he earned the terminal MFA in creative writing. He now teaches literature and writing at a suburban college near NYC, publishing occasional essays and philosophic humor. He is drafting his preacher’s kid memoirs: Frying Spam: and Other Things to do Before the Rapture. “Singing, writing, and teaching, which is my compulsion these days, could very well be in my DNA,” he says, “but I happened onto philosophy quite fortuitously. After turning in my first essay in aesthetics, the chair called me in. The next week I dropped my psychology major. Coming to philosophy freed me of the silly ideas of saints and angels. It has helped me understand my history and form an understanding that shapes my creative projects. An agnostic way of thinking is liberating; there are fewer possibilities for screwing up.”
And then music came calling once again. Ten years after releasing Unfortunate Adventures of a Naked Mystic, he ended up at the same table as the album’s drummer at Tim Carbone’s birthday party. “We have to start a band,” Jeff Barg said. Samuel reminded him he’d burnt out on music. Jeff didn’t let up. So they put together a list of non-negotiables and went into development. The next thing you know Tim Carbone came calling, “Hey, I want to produce your record.” Samuel was off and running. Again.
Bovine Social Club was released in 2012 at the world-renowned Deer Head Inn jazz club, and to great fanfare on the Americana charts. ”To be out on the road with Bovine Social Club was more than fortunate. Charmed, actually,” he says. The band followed up in 2017 with Live at Mauch Chunk Opera House with their friends in Railroad Earth and in 2019 hit the road with Samuel’s newest and most celebrated project, Clap Hands, the Poetry and Song of Tom Waits.
They rolled from listening room to amphitheater for nearly ten years, garnering an exceptional reputation, enjoying great sound, keen engineers, unhurried sound checks, sharp hotels, lovely food, and the camaraderie of good people listening to every word they sang, as if it would go on forever. And then along came the pandemic. The long wait has been trying to say the least. ”I’m just feeling my way in an existential darkness, experiencing a profound loss of the present and the possible,” he says.