It’s a packed house at The Carleton Music Bar & Grill on Argyle Street. Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Gordie Sampson is performing. With the old stonewall as the backdrop and the infectious buzz of the people milling about, Sampson is happy to be home.
He grew up in Big Pond, Cape Breton Island, across the street from Canadian singing legend Rita MacNeil. Music was always what he wanted to do. “Rita hired me on as a guitar player when I was a kid,” he says. “She gave me my first bit of work.” From there, he built a musical career that has ranged from the bright lights of Nashville to his unqiue songwriting camp here in Nova Scotia.
Sampson hosts a songwriting camp every summer in Ingonish. The Cape Breton village resonates with him as a singer and songwriter. “The landscape is just so awe inspiring,” he says. “When you have a songwriting camp you want to be in a place where you wake up before you go to collaborate on a song and think, ‘Can you believe we’re here?’ The natural beauty kind of elevates you before you even start the writing.”
Over the years, he’s picked some of Nova Scotia’s most promising songwriters a five-day series of writing sessions with him, Carleton Stone and Steve MacDougall of Slowcoaster. The camp has grown steadily over the past four summers since its inception, as he invites more musicians.
“There is an application process, but some of the people that come through are not applicants,” Sampson explains. “Sometimes we find them, like up-and-coming singer/songwriter Mo Kenney. She was there at the very beginning and at that time we had nothing to go on except people’s suggestions.” Finding artists is an ongoing process for Sampson. “The camp needs the talent. We need great talent or it does not work. If you don’t find us we are finding you.”
Soulful singer Laura Roy, who is performing at the Carleton before Sampson, attended the songwriting camp in 2012. “I had been writing my own music, but I had never been exposed to co-writing music,” she says. “Song-writing on a professional level is all about co-writing.” Sampson left an impression: “Gordie was a huge mentor, as he is to so many songwriters. He is a true Cape Bretoner; kind hearted and genuine. He is dedicated to helping and supporting young songwriters.”
To date, the camp has generated a recorded output of 150 songs—folk, reggae, rap and more. In 2013, Sampson worked to release an album of 15 songs written by camp alumni. He plans to use his industry connections to try to get the music out there. “I am taking a box down to Nashville when I go back this time,” Sampson says. “Put a few in people’s hands. I don’t know really what the plan is; no plan as of yet to market it globally or anything but you just never know.”
Sampson moved to Nashville in 2005 to pursue his songwriting career, knowing little about country music. “I went down there and fell in love with the city,” Sampson recalls. “Anyone who has been there or works there will tell you it’s a very magnetic place. Once you are a songwriter and you go to Nashville you kind of never leave.”
Sampson earned a reputation in the business, writing songs for artists like Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. “If you’re a new songwriter, and you’re good and you get off the Greyhound bus in Nashville there is somebody there who will say, ‘lets go for breakfast tomorrow. I want to hear more about you,’” he says.
In 2007, Sampson won a Grammy Award for co-writing “Jesus Takes the Wheel,” sung by Carrie Underwood. Sampson’s friend, who died in a car accident, inspired the song. “There was a fatal collision in Cape Breton and it made me flash back to my aunt when I was a kid, about 8 years old,” Sampson recalls. “We were very happily sitting at the dinner table and I just remember her telling me a random story. She was driving and lost control of the car on black ice. I said, ‘what did you do?’ and she said, ‘well, I just took my hands off the wheel’” She said the car straightened out on the road and just went along.”
The memory inspired, years later. “I had not thought about that moment for years and then I just thought, ‘Jesus Takes the Wheel’ and wrote it down,” he says. The song was a true milestone for Sampson as a songwriter. “I remember the exact moment when it came to me, and when I heard it in on the radio it was pretty damn cool.”
Despite all of his success in Nashville, Sampson still relishes a chance to return home to perform at venues like the Carleton. “Great crowds,” Gordie says with a grin. “The loyalty of the crowds, it’s just amazing, because I kinda fly under the radar these days. It’s not like I am making records all the time and I don’t even live here anymore, so to come home and just walk into a place and start doing some shows and have a bunch of people come out…” Sampson pauses and looks around. “I am a pretty lucky guy to be able to do that.”