Album/Book Review: Aaron Smith & The Coal Biters “The Legend of Sam Davis And Other Stories of Newton County Arkansas”

Independent, 2023

A remarkable historical and artistic achievement. The book and album combine to give insights into a vital set of stories while keeping sight of the need to entertain as well as inform.

The Legend of Sam Davis is a coffee-table compendium of songs, stories, artwork, maps, and family photos telling stories and legends of Newton County Arkansas. It is the second and final album from Aaron Davis and the Coal Biters. In 2013, Aaron met percussionist and vocalist Ryan Gentry, and a year later older multi-instrumentalist George Holcomb joined them to complete the group. Aaron Smith and the Coal Biters released their debut album, The Way the World Turns, in 2015. The death of Holcomb at age 76 brought the trio to an end.

This is a book first, with the music being in support of what even in the PDF supplied for review is a gorgeous collection of true stories, essays, drawings and photos. ‘Henri Martain’ looks at the story of a French immigrant married to a Native American caught up in the forced removals of the Cherokee – the notorious “trail of tears”. U.S. Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren used the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to expel people from their traditional homelands to allow for resource exploitation. Other characters include “Jack Evans, Ab Clayborn, Granny Brisco . . . not famous people, but folks who helped define this rugged sliver of the Ozarks known as Newton County.”

Opening song ‘The Way to Sam’s Throne‘ includes the first of several contributions from Grae Smith, Aaron’s 15-year-old daughter, already possessor of a considerable vocal talent. The music itself Is accomplished country/folk with a variety of instrumentation. Smith’s electric guitar is reminiscent of U2 on ‘Jack Evans’. Evans was a soldier who deserted to marry Martian’s daughter.

The interconnectedness of the characters in these stories, it’s split into 3 parts. Firstly ‘The Story of the Martain Family’ family whose descendants live in the area still. Smith says that “A theme of surviving as a family has emerged as I wrote, performed and recorded these songs. I’ve written, sung and listened as son, brother, husband, and father.” The second part is called ‘Ozark Families Have Never Had It Easy’. The four songs in this section look at families struggling to find and keep their place in their communities. The narrative quality of Smith’s song writing comes out best in this section with ‘Granny Brisco’ and ‘The Snow Child’, the former a Bluegrass tale of the local midwife and ‘The Snow Child’ is a delicate folk ballad. The final part covers the story of Sam Davis himself. He makes the point that Davis was an unreliable narrator of his own story. Was his sister kidnapped or did she simply embrace a new life? The songs here are mostly folk tunes, with the closing ‘A Thousand Years’ set as a hymn, reflecting Sam’s own transition to preaching.

Artist Dreama Phoenix is responsible for the maps, and drawings as well as working on creating the book with Smith. It’s not really possible to separate out the book from the CD, they are two aspects of the same project, and the care and love that has gone into creating both makes this a wonderful package. In the introduction Kelly Mullhollan says. “Aaron Smith is doing important work. These finely crafted songs and rich musical arrangements provide a worthy vessel to hold and preserve these stories for future generations. The Legend of Sam Davis is a great example of what folk music can still accomplish in these often-confusing modern times. Thanks to Aaron, a substantial slice of Newton County’s rich pioneer history is now safe and sound”.

You may wonder why a book and album that look at the history of a small corner of rural America would interest the wider world. But it should and it does. It’s a story that sheds light on the interactions of people at a point in history where cultures were being torn down and recreated, and in that it’s a story we should all hear and appreciate.


About Tim Martin 205 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.

1 Comment

  1. I went to high school in the Boone county, adjacent to Newton County back in the late 60s when there was one paved road (Arkansas 7), and the local industries were moonshine and marijuana, both produced in spots hidden away in the Ozark National Forest. At the time, Newton county was the 2nd poorest country in the US, edged out by one in Mississippi.

    I don’t recall hearing much music around there, maybe the occasional impromptu sidewalk picking in Jasper. If you wanted to hear traditional folk music in Arkansas, your best bet was the Mountain Home folk festival. Most of names mentioned here, I’ve heard, and Sam’s Throne was a hiking destination.

    Honestly it was a pretty terrible place, grinding poverty, violent feuds, and an economy based on crime. Not a place where outsiders were welcome.

    Times have changed, there’s a huge tourist economy driven by the Buffalo River National Park, and one can hike in the forest and canoe the Buffalo without feeling as if you’re walking point in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1965 (My father’s evaluation of Newton county in those days, and would have known what he was talking about…) I’ll have to check this out.

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