Professional bluegrass musician gains focus, friendships as Pellissippi State student

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Samuel Damewood, former Pellissippi State Music student, performs with Drake White and the Big Fire. The band opened for Eric Church this spring.

Samuel Damewood is right at home in Nashville’s limelight. Damewood helped open for country music star Eric Church this spring and describes performing for a large audience as “exhilarating.”

But Damewood says he’ll never forget the friends he made when he took a hiatus from the stage and enrolled in the Music program at Pellissippi State Community College.

In 2009, the Knoxville native had already toured the country as a professional musician for four years, playing his fiddle for thousands of people. As a member of the bluegrass band Pine Mountain Railroad, he was living the life—touring 300 days a year, playing in glitzy places, recording and hanging out with bluegrass greats Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss.

But it was at Pellissippi State that he says he finally “found himself.”

“I had hit a rough patch in my life,” said Damewood. “I decided to make a change, quit playing professionally for a while and go back to school.

“I had played with Larry Vincent [a Pellissippi State Music assistant professor] before, and he knew about my bluegrass background and wanted me to help with the college’s bluegrass ensemble, Hardin Valley Thunder. It was something I could really give to.”

For the next two years, Pellissippi State’s Music faculty became family for the now 29-year-old. As a college student, Damewood rediscovered his love for bluegrass and also found a couple of new passions: jazz and classical music.

“Two big things that Pellissippi reinvigorated: my love for life and my love for music,” he said. “I also learned who I was and what I wanted in the future.”

Damewood used his time at the college to grow both personally and technically.

“Bill Brewer became a great friend and ally and huge inspiration.” Brewer is an associate professor and program coordinator of Music. “Larry Vincent told me not to lose myself and who I am. It took me a while to figure out what he meant, but now I understand. I have this energy and this drive and almost a childlike view of music.

“Robin James was my violin teacher at Pellissippi State,” Damewood said. “Her drive for me to practice classically and work on my technique has been a super foundation for what I do in Nashville, because Nashville really isn’t the ‘country music capital of the world.’ It’s the ‘music capital of the world.’ There are so many more things going on than country.”

Damewood says the people in the Music program became his family during a hard time in his life.

“All of the teachers were such a great help. They were all very nurturing, and they listened a lot. I talked to them a lot about the classes and how they pertained to what I wanted to do in the future.”

The summer before he transferred to Belmont University in Nashville last year, he put together Heyday Revival, a progressive bluegrass band composed entirely of former and current Pellissippi State students.

“We still play gigs in Knoxville, when I’m not on the road,” he said. “We’ve got a few performances lined up for this summer.”

Damewood is now a commercial violin major with an emphasis in music technology at Belmont.

“This degree teaches you how to be a music supervisor for film and TV,” he said.  “I plan on getting my degree and then have a lot of big plans for the future. I want to eventually start my own entertainment company and use that to help people to achieve their dreams in the music industry.

“Someday down the road from that I’d like to start my own record label to help people with their dreams—just like Pellissippi State helps people.”

Meanwhile, Damewood is playing with a new group, Drake White and the Big Fire. The band signed with Universal last year and opened for country musician Eric Church’s Blood, Sweat and Beers Tour this spring. The musicians also have opened for Willie Nelson and will open for the Allman Brothers in August.

The first gig with Church was in Portland, Maine, before a 9,000-member audience—the largest Damewood had ever played for. He says he felt a surge of nervous energy and, despite his previous experience, took a sneak peek through the curtain before he went on stage.

“I’d never played on such a big stage before,” he said. “I just kind of stayed in one place for the first song and then realized the other four band members were moving around. I thought, ‘Oh, I can move.’

“After it was over the guys in the band said they were proud of me for owning the stage and not being afraid. It’s very intoxicating in a way that just by moving around and doing things, you can have 9,000 people watch you. It’s crazy.”

These days, Damewood is back and riding high. “My life is full steam ahead forward. I couldn’t be any happier. A lot of that stems from my time at Pellissippi State.”

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