Reflection, perspective, and determination are at the heart of Time Machine, the second album from Nashville’s Kashena Sampson. That description, coupled with the unsurprising saturation of COVID-era songwriting inspiration, would make one think that her record likely comes from soul searching that has been thrust upon us over the last year and a half. Perhaps it’s ironic that the tracks for Time Machine were mastered prior to Sampson’s life being turned upside down in early 2020—first by the tornado that decimated her source of income bartending at Nashville’s Basement East and later by the devastating impact the pandemic had on the music industry. In reality, her album is all about dealing with codependency, finding a way to move on, and growing from life experiences. However, it may also be possible that Sampson has the most apt album title of all time for a collection of songs that inspire discovery and resolve, almost as if her songwriting senses knew this was a record we would need in 2021.
Fittingly, no song embraces the theme of Time Machine better than its title track. Over a gentle acoustic guitar riff and a piano melody, Sampson looks upon the past and finds that many dreams are simply delusion in disguise. However, she doesn’t approach this wisdom in a state of melancholy. Instead, she finds strength while embracing reality.
Sampson, a familiar face behind the bar for many of us Nashville concert-goers, may be one of the most visible examples of the grit that it takes to persevere in an industry where talent, exposure, and quality songs often still mean hours of work tending bars, waiting tables, or pushing paperwork to keep the dream alive. The slow-build folk-country-rocker, “From the Outside,” paints a vivid picture of the dichotomy between the pure joy the artist gets from performing clashing with the struggle behind the curtain. The addition of the ominous guitar and Sampson’s wonderful use of inflection in her vocals drives home the song’s turmoil.
Time Machine may dole out a healthy dose of introspection but never feels heavy. Part of this is due to the fact that Sampson packages her biggest emotional punches in her words yet keeps the music upbeat enough that you never feel mired in melancholy. However, it also benefits from bright, hopeful tracks like, “Little Spot of Sun.” As Sampson preaches about seeking out and embracing the good side of any moment, the song lays down a classic country vibe that would feel right at home on your father’s VHS tapes of the Grand Ole Opry. Somehow the track feels like its being played on vinyl…even if you’re cheating and listening on Spotify.
There are little surprises throughout the album to keep your interest. You’ll have to listen to put together all the pieces that add up to her vision. There’s the opening cover of Shocking Blue’s “Hello Darkness.” Here Sampson goes more groovy country rock with vocals that inspire comparison to when Margo Price kicks up the tempo. A more notable twist comes late in the album with, “The Black Sea.” The track feels like a bard’s tale reimagined as a building rocker. Sampson showcases her vocal power, adding a dramatic pageantry that would make Nick Cave take notice.
Her 2017 album, Wild Heart, gave most of us our first chance to hear Sampson’s traditional, country-soul sound. While she had been performing for several years on the cruise ship circuit, Wild Heart was something distinctive and distinctly her own. Time Machine has many of the elements of Kashena Sampson’s prior work, most notably her classic vocals with the range to carry a world of lyrical emotion. However, it shows clear progression as well—a maturity in both lyrical crafting and smart production.
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Images of Kashena Sampson by Laura E. Partain