by Richard L. Gaw Published March 19, 2010 at 09:52 AM
Photograph by Jared Castaldi
As a child, Samuel Lam would visit his grandparents in western Virginia and listen to them play banjo beside a woodstove. The music cut right through him.
So when he turned 10, he walked into his family’s living room in Kennett Square to find a fiddle, a gift from his mother. He took lessons for three years, then, one evening, began playing tunes he had heard the night before on a radio show.
“My teacher came flying in from the kitchen and said, ‘Samuel, where did you learn how to play that?’” Lam says. “I told him, ‘The Grand Ole Opry,’ and he told me I had to move on. There was nothing more he could do for me.”
Lam later joined a guitar with his fiddle and embarked as a folksinger in Chester County and Delaware, performing more than 100 original songs with White Clay Tributary, the band he formed as a love letter to folk and bluegrass, for nearly 25 years.
A combination of the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and autoharp, Tributary made four live recordings and performed music “that stepped across sound barriers for many people who hadn’t heard it before,” Lam says.
The band’s schedule eventually overtook the members’ obligations to family, so it disbanded last year. Lam, who had just turned 75, made his first solo recording in three decades. “The Road Home,” released independently last year, is a 13-track compilation Lam wrote and recorded with his guitar.
“This is about old, good things, like old lace and the love of a good woman,” he says, sitting beside Gail, his wife of 54 years. “The title track is about a man who travels the country and, in the end, knows where the road leads. It leads home.”
To stand in his living room is to witness the scattered evidence of a restless soul. There are two Martin guitars, an upright piano, two antique fiddles, and his grandson’s drum set.
They knock about now, a young boy and his grandfather, just jamming the hours away in preparation for the day they might perform together. There are also unfinished lyrics written on loose-leaf paper on the shelf.
Lam isn’t content with his songs yet. He needs to become a better writer, like Allison Krauss and Ricky Scaggs and those kids from Nickel Creek, and has decided to devote the next 10 years of his life to it.