Sammy Horner: The globetrotting troubadour long associated with Celtic Praise

Friday 30th July 2010

Tony Cummings chronicles the 20 years of music making and ministry by roots singer/songwriter SAMMY HORNER

Continued from page 1

Sammy remembered an incident during the recording of 'Celtic Praise Vol 3'. "Do you remember those VS 80s eight-track recorders? They're about the size of a briefcase. We tracked the album here in Glasgow but I mixed it at ICC. I had these VS 80s in flight cases, these little aluminium flight cases and Gordon, my sound engineer, and I were going down to dump them onto the multi-track in the big studio. Coming back through Gatwick airport we had these in a duffle bag. They were heavy - they were cutting into my shoulder and I slung it up over my other shoulder and I heard this crunch and I thought oh no, I've hit somebody. And when I turned round it was a nun and the first thought that came into my head was I've just broken a nun's nose with a worship album. Now there's a sentence you're never going to hear again. I think she must have had a vow of silence but she was definitely mouthing something at me that didn't look very godly."

In 1999 with The Electrics stepping away from their Five Minute Walk/Sara Bellum deal, Sammy Horner took an unexpected musical detour when he recorded the first (and as far as anyone knows the only) Celtic club dance gospel record. Released under the name The Seanacheidh ("it means The Storyteller") 'Ceilidh Electric: A Time To Dance' was groundbreaking stuff. Explained Sammy, "I like all kinds of music and that includes club music. I was in Nashville in the GMA week and I was trying to avoid it as much as possible. It's crazy. You turn up there it's just like booths and booths and booths of people interviewing Christian artists. But in America you don't get people who have done any research. Every question is, 'Why is the band called The Electrics?' So when you've answered that 50 times a day you start making stuff up. It's insane. So I was trying to get away from it. I was having lunch with Jonathan Brown, who at that point was with Word Records, and Becky Sarker. Becky did a lot of tour management with All Star United and she's tour manager for Hansen in Oklahoma. Becky was right into dance music.

"We were sitting having lunch - a Chinese meal somewhere in Nashville. I just happened to say - 'cos as you know I have never finished a project before I've got the next three projects in my head - I happened to say to Jonathan Brown, 'You know, I don't think anybody has taken whistle and pipe and looped them, I don't think anybody has done that.' And at that point nobody had. He said, 'Oh, that'd be great. Could you do it?' I said I could try. You know producing an album is about 20% you having the vision for that thing to happen and the other 80% is finding the people to make it happen - the musicians and the technology guys. I knew some guys but it actually took about two years before Word eventually gave me the green light and by that time Martin Bennett had brought out 'Bothy Culture' and stuff: it had happened. We could have been the first to do it but Martin Bennett brought out the mainstream thing. And then everybody was doing it. Anyway, I was working with kids with behavioural problems for a couple of years in Scotland. I'd finish for the day then I'd go to the studio 'til three or four in the morning every night. It was a killer. But we produced quite a nice little album and it still seems to trickle out there. But when I listen to it now with the technology that I have now, I think I could really nail this now. But we didn't have the technology, we were still using Workstations and nowadays you don't even need anybody to play the stuff, you just sample and paste."

The same year that the much delayed 'Ceillidh Electric' was released by Word, ICC released 'Celtic Praise Vol 4: See And Touch And Hear'. "It was basically the same formula," said Sammy. "I got a bunch of folkies in. I'd heard some people sing some beautiful stuff, real folk singers like Alastair McDonald, and I asked them to come in. I'd been reading a lot about Celtic Christianity and found that worship to them was not so much about music but worship was much more inclusive. Because music is exclusive - it is. If you don't like a particular form of music you won't like listening to it, you won't be involved in it. If you're not a musician, then you can't play it; if you're not a singer, then you can't sing it. So music is only inclusive at one level. Of course the loophole that people say is 'make a joyful noise!' Well, that's all very well but I don't want to hear recorded joyful noises. You want it to have some sort of musical quality about it. But I realised that and when I was reading it I found out that the Celts believed that worship was actually all involved in something that they called the five stringed harp which was the five senses, which is inclusive. So everybody can worship by smelling flowers and seeing nature and hearing, so hearing music can be worship. Amazing grace how sweet the sound - it's a sound. So the five senses are inclusive and I like the notion of that, hence Volume 4, which sprang into the only ever Celtic Praise Tour. I had never toured Celtic Praise before. I did one tour of 14 dates in the UK and one in Germany. Record company support I think was they made posters for it. There were 20 of us on the road with crew and everything and we broke even. 14 gigs and we just broke even. It was a killer."

Sammy Horner
Sammy Horner

More recording and touring with The Electrics meant it wasn't until 2003 that the stalwart recorded another album. Not surprisingly, it was a return once more to familiar musical territory. Sammy spoke about the 'Acoustic Celtic Worship' album. "I used to do a lot of work in schools with kids and one of the schools I worked in was a residential school for kids who had real behavioural problems. In Scotland religious education is one of the key subjects that must be taught. It was a Church of Scotland school and they didn't have a religious education teacher. They were due for inspection and they would have failed the inspection. They said to me, 'Would you please be our religious education teacher?' At that point I'd done a teaching degree so I had the qualification so I said I would do three days a week. I was in there doing that and it was fine, it wasn't really the gig I wanted to spend my life doing but I did two years with them and just gigged weekends. But during that time - obviously when you're doing that kind of thing it bites into how much you can be away. Schools in particular, there are only certain times you've got off. I thought to myself I don't think I want to keep doing this. I had an opportunity to go to America to do this solo thing so I wanted to do something that was kind of reflective of that. I wasn't doing a punk rock or Electrics thing, it was just me with my acoustic guitar and I'm not a guitar player - I'm a bass player! At that point I was a bit nervous about going out on my own. So I made this little thing at home - just got the guys in and we tracked it down in about a week I think. Ironically, it's sold better than some Electrics albums! It's bizarre. That little record - I guess from my point of view it was just so people could take home something of what they'd just heard. Although there were fiddles and stuff on it, it was real acoustic, real raw."

In 2005 Sammy finally completed an album he'd been producing off and on at his home studio with long time friend and conference speaker Chris Mercer. The project 'Whispers Of His Grace', with its mix of Celtic and country-tinged songs, several co-written by Horner and Mercer, got considerable airplay in Europe.

For his own albums, after the independently released 'Acoustic Celtic Praise' Sammy returned once more to a record company, for the big budget 'Inspired To Worship' album released through Kingsway. Said Sammy somewhat ruefully, "It was going to be Nashville produced; it was going to be through Kingsway, it was going to be for that market. This is the language that I've had to learn to speak because I've realised very much that it's about a market, it's very much about selling product and if you do it for a record company you need to go into it understanding that. I understood that this would be a thing that I wouldn't produce - it wouldn't have the sounds I would put on it, it was going to be made to be that slick, Nashville thing. So I flew out to Nashville and Phil and I - Phil Maderia and I had become good friends - just sat in the studio about 10 days - piano, voice - and I just sang the whole thing. And then I left. I didn't hear it until it was finished. Phil Keaggy was in there, a Canadian girl did some lovely vocals on it, Chris Donahue was playing bass on it. I've known all these guys for years and they're all great. So I knew it was in good hands. But I always knew it was never going to be the wild thing that I would make it 'cos I've got a tendency to growl and to push things and this was going to be much gentler. But it was fine. It was exactly what it was meant to be."

In 2006 Sammy recorded a duet album with Irish folk and Americana man Rodney Cordner. The singer's rootsy styles complimented each other well on the 'Passengers' set and the Cross Rhythms reviewer heard traces of "Dylan and even Woody Guthrie" in their sound while "the mandolin, dobro and accordion blend well with the acoustic guitars."

A long time lover of country music Sammy took the opportunity to record 'Tunes From The Darkside' under the nom-de-disc of Dark Country. And the story songs of heartbreak and murder were some of the starkest sagas recorded by a Christian since the hey day of Johnny Cash. Sammy recounted the origins of the project. "My mate Jimmy D was messing around with a baritone guitar I had. He started playing a riff that sounded kinda gloomy but very cool, so I scribbled some lyrics down and found a melody and before we knew it we had a very dark song. A tour promoter who owned a little label stayed with me during one of Buddy Miller's solo tours after I had joined Buddy on bass for his Glasgow show. He had heard some of The Electrics music and asked what I had been working on. When he heard this experimental dark country track he offered us a deal if we could write 10 more. So we did. It was eventually released by Silver Bullet Records in Australia. People are surprised to find my name on the credits but I always remind them that Johnny Cash mixed murder songs with gospel songs and love songs, etc, etc. I guess we all have a dark side. Be very afraid!"

In 2007 Sammy released the album 'Songs For The Sick And Tired' which graphically illustrated his spiritual and physical state. "I got sick and tired. Literally, I got very sick. I got a liver condition, which is a form of hepatitis, but it affects the liver like cirrhosis except it's not alcohol related. It's just genetic. It's just one of those things, they tell me. The problem is I didn't know how long I've had it and I was starting to feel tired all the time. You put it down to you're getting a bit older, my schedule was insane, but tired like needing a nap, needing to lie down and I never lie down. I actually only found out about that because about three years ago, about 2 days after Christmas, I woke up and my left side was numb. I thought I'd had a stroke or something, just in bed, but then I could feel tingling and it felt like it was easing but my arm and shoulder weren't getting any better. I got off to the hospital and they tested me and couldn't find anything. They brought me in for further tests and they revealed this problem with my liver and this numbness. I still have this feeling in my left hand which is a bit of a nonsense when you're a musician. I have motor function, I just don't feel it. And there are little bone spurs, which are just excess pieces of calcium but they're growing on the inside of my vertebrae and pressing on my spinal cord, causing the numbness. But it took about two years of tests to find all this out. And this fatigue was unbelievable. I did an insane tour with John Smith when I was sick the whole time and he'd just had radiation treatment for cancer. It was miserable, although we did laugh a fair bit. I was just getting sicker and sicker and getting to the stage where I was really not functioning very well and it was affecting my head as well. I was not in a good place.

"Anyway, I started writing these songs and despite the title it's not a depressing album at all, they're actually songs of hope. I recorded some here, I recorded some in Ireland. What would happen is I would be in Ireland with Rodney Cordner to record, maybe do a few concerts, and we'd go down to this place that was like a barn but there was a studio in it. There was a band called the Goldmine Pickers who are a bunch of Mennonite Bluegrass guys and they were doing the everythings on one mic, recording. And then the oddest thing would happen, like the guy who was playing mandolin just sat down and burst into tears. He said his girlfriend had left him, they'd been going out for years and thought they were going to get married, and I would just say, 'You want to record a song?' 'Sure man.' I got to San Francisco and people came to me and said what are you doing and I'd say I'm making this record. Can I play? Guys that were coming off drugs, guys that were struggling with addiction, guys who had a history of going with hookers. All these people. Apart from the guy who produced three or four of the tracks in San Francisco and a lovely girl who sang for me because she was a big Electrics fan, every single other person on that was either sick or tired or been through some sort of addiction therapy. Every single person. And they all asked me if they could play. I just said at the beginning of that year that I would play anywhere and anybody who wanted to play with me was welcome. I wouldn't discriminate on any grounds. In San Francisco I was recording with this guy called Masaki Liu who had produced one of The Electrics albums. He's a great producer and he's got a great studio."

In fact Masaki Liu is a renowned producer and studio owner who as well as producing 1997's 'The Electrics' album has worked on projects by such luminaries as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Five Iron Frenzy and Echoing Green. Sammy explained how the 'Songs For The Sick And Tired' sessions came about. "Masaki said to me, 'I've got some spare time let's just do this.' I was thinking I can't afford this guy. This is expensive stuff. I said to him, 'I don't have much money you know. I'll pay whatever you ask me but I can't spend a lot of time.' But he was very patient and we recorded these songs and at the end I'm kind of nervous. I said, 'You need to tell me how much I owe you,' which really wasn't very much but it might as well have been a million dollars for me. But I was grateful. This was one of those odd moments that rarely happen but I have a little pay as you go mobile phone in America - I just use it in case I get lost, hardly anybody's got the number. I just went out for a walk and my phone rang. I didn't recognise who it was, I answered the phone and this guy says, 'Is that Sammy?' The boy who owns the record company had contacted him. I said, 'It is.' He said, 'What are you doing right now?' I said, 'I'm recording some stuff.' And he said, 'I don't know what you're doing, I don't know what it's about but I just got this feeling that it's very important. Send me the bill.' And he paid for the whole thing. Artwork, everything. And he said, 'Don't worry about how much it costs.' So I went back to Saki and said, 'You know that price you gave me?' I think you should honour people and what he'd said to me wasn't enough. He's got a wife and kids. I said, 'Why don't we double it,' and he said, 'It'd be great if you can.' So I said, 'Apparently we can.' And the whole project didn't cost me a penny. It was one of those very rare moments that don't often happen."

In 2008 Sammy wrote and recorded a song not intended for commercial release though it did end up being featured in the controversial documentary about the life and times of Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman, Fallen Angel, directed by David Di Sabatino. "Larry's Son" was written during one of Sammy's frequent visits to Australia, in the living room of Jennifer Wallace, the Australian lady who insists that her son Daniel was fathered by Norman. Explained Sammy, "I recorded it very quickly as a gift to Jennifer and Daniel. But then David Di Sabatino asked if he could use it on Fallen Angel's soundtrack when Daniel was on screen. So I said sure. 'Larry's Son' is not available to buy or anything, I didn't make it for any profit. It was just simply asking the question. I don't think that there would be anyone who could in any way put down what Larry did in terms of his music. It was great. Put out a CCM record these days with someone singing 'Gonorrhoea on Valentine's Day/Still looking for the perfect lay. . .' you wouldn't even get a record deal. Larry was brilliant, he did some wonderful stuff. But I don't even think that Larry would say he got it all right. I just kind of wish that the whole thing had been settled. There have been all these rumours about Larry's son for years and years. So to people who say you shouldn't base things on rumour I would say, if you believe in Larry Norman you believe in rumour. Because Larry was great in many ways and flawed in many other ways."

Sammy Horner: The globetrotting troubadour long associated with Celtic Praise

The album Sammy released in 2008 was considerably less controversial than "Larry's Son". It was 'New Stuff For Christmas'. Commented the songsmith, "People had been saying for ages I should make a Christmas album and I thought what can I do with Christmas songs that hasn't been done brilliantly - and badly - before. And I thought to myself what I could do is apply my twisted mind to it and so I thought about Christmas consumerism and I wrote songs like 'Merry Consumeras' - it's a kind of lie, lie, lie! And songs like 'WWJK' - Who Would Jesus Kill? You read the story of Christmas and the story of Christmas is not the nativity scene we see with our children with tea towels on their heads. It is not the lovely gentle thing that we read. It is the story of infanticide, of psychotic world leaders doing anything to keep their seat, of a pregnant 15, 16 year old girl who's betrothed to a bloke who's just been told that God's the father of this child and who's thinking yeah, right, and still having to go and do the census. It's about being in a stable in the stink and the dirt. It's not a pleasant story at all. The only light in the story is that a child is born. And that continues to be the light. There's a hope in every single child that's born that maybe things can get better with that child. And I dare say when Jesus was born Mary just thought the same things that we think of our own children, that hopefully he'll grow up to be this something that we aren't. I kind of just applied that to the whole thing really and wrote a bunch of songs. I recorded all of it in Scotland but I had some Nashville and Californian sessions done and emailed to me - the beauty of the Internet and digital recording. It took me about a year to get it out. I had it out in America on my last tour in May. So you can see marketing is not my strong point."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Marian in Australia @ 01:01 on Apr 25 2019

Thanks for sharing your story. Had the honour of meeting you briefly Sammy and John Smith in Newcastle Australia. I first heard your music and lyrics on the Red Burn album and loved hearing you lead us live. Pity the congregation were so staid they think it's a sin to dance a jig. In Australia most of the Irish were deported convicts and Catholic and I'm from Gaelic stock who migrated during the potato famine with a bit of Welsh, Highlander, French and English thrown in like in the song "this is the biggest mix up you have ever father he was Orange and me mother she was Green!" Your songs of praise lift my heart and soul to God and I'm sure you and John touched many hearts through reaching out to folk in pubs. My old dad even likes your music. There is still a tradition of folk dancing here in Australia in rural areas with some churches supporting the social gatherings. Sadly some barn dances are far removed from the family social and the bands perform in cages to protect them from drunks with broken bottles. A sign of the times. Worship lifts us above the woes of this world and gives us hope in our Redeemer. Peace to you brother.

Posted by Dougie in Glasgow @ 13:28 on Aug 1 2010

i'd love to get hold of a lot of Sammy's solo projects. I have the full set of Celtic Praise CDs and Inspired To Worship... would love to have the kids albums for my own work in schools and used to have the SWAT cassette but never got it back after loaning it to a friend. Is there any easy way to get many of Sammy's recent projects?

Posted by Alex Legg in Australia @ 03:06 on Jul 31 2010

Absolutely brilliant article. The man's heart is true, an inspiration! And beautifully written Tony.

Posted by chris mercer in the world @ 22:48 on Jul 30 2010

a brilliantly written article written by a long time friend about my long time friend and brilliant producer...about time its a wonder you could catch him...genius always moves so fast

Posted by Wolfgang in L├╝denscheid, Germany @ 16:33 on Jul 30 2010

Since I became a christian in the early nineties Sammy Horner has been one of my all time favourite musicians. I have nearly everything by him. (Including the Wonderkids and 'Dark Country' and the celtic technoalbum and a sampler with lovesongs). I think his music is very encouraging. His best songs like 'The blessing' or 'Glen-a-John Air' still sound good, even if you have heard them a hundred times. I think he is a songwriter as gifted as Shane MacGowan and in his darker moments he reminds me of Nick Cave or Woven Hand.

Thank you very much for this very interesting article.

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