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Sam and Ruby

By WPLN's Craig Havighurst


Nashville, TN – Duos from Nashville have usually been siblings channeling the close harmonies of the Everly Brothers or the romance of classic George Jones/Tammy Wynette country duets. But Sam & Ruby draw their strength from just how different each is from the other. The Associated Press just named their debut album the best of the year. From Nashville Public Radio, Craig Havighurst has this profile of the duo.

(Live performance of "What Do I Do Now") Although they were celebrating the release of a debut album, and although that CD is garnering strong reviews, it is Sam & Ruby's live show - like this intimate late-summer performance at Grimey's record store - that impels people to tell their friends about the music.

Not that they are an easy act to describe. Sam Brooker is a rail-thin white guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin whose musical tastes were shaped by the likes of James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Ruby Amanfu, born in Ghana, West Africa, was raised in Nashville from the age of three. As a girl, she was only exposed to gospel music, until she discovered Madonna. Both took winding paths toward solo careers based in Music City. And then, a decade ago, they met.

"When I saw Sam for the first time in 1999 he was doing an in the round and I just knew when I saw him and when I heard him that whatever that was I wanted some of that. So I spoke to him afterwards. And this town is funny. You assume that you meet someone who does music so you instantly begin to do music together. But that's not how it was for he and I which was really neat. We got to become friends and ended up being friends for a couple years before we even wrote our first song," Ruby said.

Long before that song - "The Here And The Now" -- became the title track of their album, it became part of the drama and the struggle of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace. Ruby's music publisher promised to put the song on a sampler CD for the producers of the movie version of The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood, which was then Ruby's favorite book.

Meanwhile Sam was working a day job at a CD duplication house, and by chance that sampler CD came across his desk. He called Ruby, crestfallen. Their song wasn't on it.

"I had to ask my boss - we have a song for this movie. And do you mind if I put it as song 13 on this CD? Just add it. He was like dude, I can't do that. And still I almost did it. I was like screw that. That's how things happen. And I didn't. So we were bummed out. We missed our shot on that one. But then at live shows we'd sing that song. If I had a show I'd invite Ruby up. If she had a show, Sam, come on up," Sam said.

Audiences remarked on the song after shows, almost to the exclusion of their solo material. And with time, the notion of joining forces as more than co-writers and occasional collaborators took shape. Even they were surprised how well his guitar-driven pop blended with her smoky, silky rhythm and blues.

"We went to Austin and played the Saxon Pub and KNEW . We knew, oksy, this was something that was going to happen whether we like or not. And luckily we liked it," Ruby said. So did influential independent record label Ryko, which signed the duo.

On their album cover and singing on stage together, Sam & Ruby could be easily mistaken for a couple. For the record, they are not. Just a duo with unusual empathy. Ruby goes so far as to call Sam her musical soul mate.

"People get from it what we get from it - the brother sister connection - the lover connection - the mother/father connection. It's all there. It's a soul connection," Ruby said.

"Hearing how our music affects people is like kind of a constant reminder of wow this is so much more than just us standing on stage singing songs," Sam said.

Sam and Ruby are not musical experimentalists, consciously seeking some new fusion of genres. They are, it seems, story-tellers and emotional communicators who found that songwriting and singing - together - just happened to be the most effective way to get there.