Listen: Say Grace

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Article Reviews
Sam Baker (Self-released, 2013)

Say Grace is a collection of rough-hewn jewels honoring the people Sam Baker calls “everyday heroes.” There is the flagman on “Road Crew,” another guy “wrestling a pipe in a ditch,” the lonely woman in the “terrycloth bathrobe with a tear.” Their portraits are set in a sparse frame of guitars, piano, violin, and Baker’s earnest croak of a voice, and they are all holy. They are all, as Thomas Merton put it, “walking around shining like the sun.”

Baker’s transcendent vision is a hard-earned one. In 1986 he was a 31-year-old bank examiner adventure-touring on a train in Peru when a terrorist bomb went off in the metal luggage rack above his head. The family seated around him died. Baker had a near-death experience of returning to the light but was pulled back to spend years being reassembled by surgeons.

Before the bombing, Baker played music as a hobby; afterward, it became his lifeline. The fingers of his left hand were so badly mangled that he had to relearn guitar as a flatpicking lefty. He had a lot to say, but his brain damage made finding the words a struggle. Finally he put out his first album, Mercy, in 2004, at the age of 50, and three more have followed.

Baker grew up in Itasca, Texas, between Dallas and Waco, and in musical vocabulary, tone, and timbre, his work owes a lot to the great Texas singer-songwriters—Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, et al. He draws on the hymns he learned as a child in the Presbyterian Church. Say Grace includes a short version of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and another song set to the tune of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.” But a couple of other songs (“Feast” and “Button by Button”) sound more like Brecht-Weil tunes, as played by a New Orleans stride piano.

Christian believers are supposed to know that suffering—even the random, undeserved kind—can become redemptive. Usually we have to take that on faith, but on Say Grace, Baker gives us proof.

This article appeared in the July 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 7, page 42).