Singer-songwriter Samantha Crain will tell you her music isn’t country, folk, or rock and roll. She says it’s not an Oklahoma sound either, even though some of her songs portray life in the state’s small towns, back roads, and struggles. Like the song "Elk City," from her 2015 album Under Branch and Thorn and Tree.
“I’m telling the story of someone, who…had she been born or lived somewhere else, her life wouldn’t have ended up the way that it did. It’s a very complicated relationship because it talks about how marginalized and horrible this person’s life has ended up being. Because it takes place in Oklahoma, it ended up being this really sad story."
Below, watch our video portrait of Samantha Crain, produced by FireThief Productions:
Born and raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Crain started playing and writing music the summer after graduating from high school. She had some short stories she’d written and a guitar her dad bought for her. She taught herself how to play and recorded her first EP called The Confiscation. She booked gigs around town, started playing for tips and money, and then toured and traveled—something she always wanted to do.
“I’ve always kind of stuck out around here. I don’t feel like I have a lot in common with the normal environment, culture around here. I think that’s what led me to want to travel and see more. It’s what led me to songwriting and it’s what led me to making music.”
Resisting labels aside, being called a Native American artist is something Crain accepts. She thinks it’s a positive thing for younger, Native people to see a fellow Native person following their dreams. She’s Choctaw. People often will ask her how her heritage is reflected in her music. Her answer to that is a complicated one.
“So much of its original identity is gone because of the Christianization that has happened. If you look around my house, every book that says Choctaw on it, anything about songs…it’s just Christian hymns being sung in the Choctaw language. There were definitely songs my great-grandpa was singing before they started singing whatever Christian hymns were being (sung).”
Even though she doesn’t consider herself an activist, Crain does takes on social issues in her songwriting, but in the form of characters—someone whose life is affected by something: gun violence, incarceration or poverty.
Cultural appropriation is one issue she did find herself in the middle of. When Christina Fallin, daughter of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, posted a picture on her Instagram account wearing an Indian headdress, it sparked an outcry in Native Media outlets all over the country and on social media. Crain said she spoke out against something she thought was offensive.
“The intent behind it…usually, there is no intent. It’s people that aren’t educated in a specific culture to realize they’re appropriating something. I saw that as an opportunity to draw out a lot of the people around here who, I think were already really active in the fight and the conversation against cultural appropriation, specifically the appropriation of Native cultures.”
Right now, Crain is focusing on writing for her next album, a process she loves after being on the road for several months.
“This is the part that I love the best. The actual excitement of making music happens whenever you get home and you have all this stuff rolling around in your brain and you get to see how your brain puts it together. Because I don't understand it and I don't know why it happens that way. It’s fun and it’s really exciting to see how it all comes together.”
Watch an exclusive performance of the song "Elk City":
Invisible Nations is brought to you by KOSU and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.