How Illness Pushed Nashville-Based Singer Sam to Follow Her Southern Soul Dreams

Ryan Nolan
Sam Stephens

She knows it's going to come up in conversations. And it's not something she minds. While the Nashville-based singer goes by Sam, she knows if people hear her full name -- Samantha Stephens -- they're going to ask about Bewitched, the '60s sitcom starring Elizabeth Montgomery as a housewife/witch with the same name. 

"You know what's really funny, I grew up watching that show at my grandmother's house on Nick at Night," the Georgia-born singer told Billboard. "I don't know if the rest of my generation was hip to that, but no one really picked on me about it until the movie with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell came out, the remake, and then they'd ask, 'Are you aware that your first and your last name are...'" Most often, the question that I get is 'Can you twitch your nose?'"

So... can she? "No, I can't," she says with a laugh. "If I can twitch my nose and make anything happen, there'd be a lot of things different," she asserts.

Stephens has carved out a career as one of Nashville's most respected journalists, becoming a popular correspondent and writer for CMT. But the musical direction she follows on Stargazer, her debut album (out today), is much different than you might anticipate giving her occupation. Sam is a southern soul singer, as evidenced on such full-throttle performances as the stunning "Tell It Like It Ain't." That sound is something that she comes by naturally via growing up in South Georgia.

"There's a whole other side of the South too that not a lot of people really identify with up here in Nashville. I'm talking about the Johnny Mercer side of things - the moonlight and moss and magnolias of the South. That's a type of southern culture that I would define as a little more southern than country. I grew up a couple hours away from Savannah, Georgia. My mother loved Savannah, and we would frequently take trips down there on the weekends and tour the historic homes and wander in and out of the blues bars. One hour away from us was Macon, which is sort of a little hotbed for soul and the birthplace of so many people that were such prominent figures in blues like Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers."

Sam says that another influence on her sound was the Capitol Records work of Bobbie Gentry, which comes across vividly on "Boom CH Boom."

"There was such an understated quality to her artistry. There's a little bit of mystery. I always associated her as just sort of a musical tease - like she had this very mysterious quality about her that was very appealing. She was beautiful, and she could sing her hind end off, but there was always something a little, slightly taboo and sassy about her. I mean obviously the stuff that you grew up listening to, you sort of absorb that, and over the years, it becomes a part of your sound. Even as you're growing up and evolving, different pieces of an artist that you loved growing up start to come forth as you go through different phases of developing your own artistry."

Still, it took a while – and a major health scare – for Sam to find her way musically. She moved to Nashville, and was working at CMT while pursuing music that was more in line with the current mainstream of the country format. Then, she was diagnosed with Cushing's Disease, and moved back to Georgia for a while. It was a time of quiet contemplation for her, one that made her re-discover who she wanted to be.

"I was looking around at all of these photographs, surrounded by all of these memories, and I was just thought, 'What are you doing? You know who you are. This is who you are.' It had already been slowly revealed to me as I was writing. Don't deny it. The reasons you write songs like 'Foolish Man' is that's what makes your heart happy; that's who you are and that's what you're supposed to be doing."

She returned to Music City determined to make the type of music that was in her soul – on her terms. "I decided I'm going to go back, and I'm going to give it a try, and I'm going to do what I'm supposed to be doing this time and just see what happens."

Not too long after her return to Nashville, Sam was approached by a friend to do a demo for Jason White – who wrote "Red Ragtop" for Tim McGraw and "Choctaw County Affair" for Carrie Underwood. White liked her work, and wanted her for another demo.

"I remember walking into the studio and saying, 'This is a wonderful song. I love it. Do you have any kind of notes we want to talk about before we go in?' Nick Buda – the drummer on the session - just looked at me and he goes, 'Just sing it like an artist.' I said a prayer, and I thought, 'Lord, reach down, put your hand on my vocal cords, give me all of the Patti Labelle, give me of the Etta James, give me all the vibes and the voodoo you can possibly give me because I want these guys to be happy with this.'"

Two weeks later, White called her again. He wanted to cut some more sides on her in that same swampy-style vein, with Buda co-producing.

"I kind of stopped for a second, and it honestly took my breath away because I thought, 'Wow. You're going to do it. You're going to do it this time.'"

Three years after her illness, she ironically credits it for forcing her to re-evaluate her life. "It really forced me to look inward and upward for answers. It was an incredible time of reflection for me. It showed me who I was as a person, and it allowed me to start thinking like that as an artist. Honestly, that's when doors started opening and when opportunities started presenting themselves - when I accepted who I was. I stopped worrying about how other people would receive it. I just had faith in it and I just trusted that everything was going to be okay."

Now with Stargazer out, Sam prepares to take her sound on the road. "We have a band that we play with, and we have several different versions. We have the full set up with the horns and the holler back girl. Then, we have sort of the trio for smaller and intimate gigs. Our goal is to make the songs the best that they can possibly be – so that no matter how they're brought to life on stage, they reach people. They touch people. They matter."