Singer-songwriter Sam Ness on the road again

Sauk City native nominated for eight MAMA Awards.
Sam Ness
Sam Ness (Photo courtesy of J.C. Dunst)

One day last week, Sam Ness pointed a compass west, got in a van and hit the road — again.

“I have needed a good adventure,” he said.

Don’t ask exactly where he is headed.

“Last time I was trying to find my way to Texas,” he said. “I ended up in Florida.”

Ness, 22, is a singer-songwriter with the air of an old soul. He grew up in Sauk City and now lives in Baraboo. But over the past five years he has seen much of the world, from Scotland to New Zealand to Thailand.

Ness chose the road over college musical theater scholarship offers. He travels with a guitar and little else, and has accrued a deep well of colorful stories. Ness can tell you why not to wear a cap while busking in Edinburgh and how easily a booking agent in Bangkok has no need for scruples.

But it’s when he sings and plays music that Ness really shines. Earlier this year, Ness recorded — at Audio for the Arts in Madison [] — a strikingly original version of a classic Willie Nelson song. Fittingly, it is “On the Road Again.”

On July 20, it was announced that Ness was a finalist in eight categories of the 2020 Madison Area Music Awards, including best male vocalist (which he won in 2019) and artist of the year.

It’s a talent that first blossomed at Sauk Prairie High School. While in middle school, Ness saw the high school’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and was blown away. Still, he wasn’t sure it was for him — he was a football player. A new choir teacher encouraged Ness’s participation. Soon he was starring in the school’s musicals and especially in show choir competitions, which brought the scholarship offers. He was also driving to Madison several nights a week, doing open mic nights. His favorite venue was the Tip Top Tavern.

The night Ness graduated, the choir teacher told him the hope had been that if Ness got excited about music, that passion might extend to his other studies.

“Here we are, five years later,” the teacher said. “You love the choir, and still don’t care about anything else.”

If Ness has another abiding enthusiasm, it is likely for the natural world. He’s a fisherman and a hiker and it wasn’t long after that graduation night that Ness found himself sitting on Gibraltar Rock near Lodi wondering how a 17 year old with little life experience could convincingly portray a character on a musical stage.

Ness decided he needed to see the world. Word got out that he was raising money to travel, and Ness received a call from the mother of a friend — the woman and her husband had seen Ness do show choir.

“I understand you want to travel,” she said. “Where do you want to go?”

Ness was scrolling through Google Maps. He recognized the name Edinburgh from a Passengers song.

“Edinburgh,” Ness said. He didn’t even know it was in Scotland.

A few seconds passed. “I just booked your ticket,” the woman said.

Ness spent nine months in Europe. A Canadian busker in Edinburgh gave him a tutorial on street performing — “It’s about body language and trust” — but when Ness got back, he wanted to make an album and, eventually, concentrate on performing in clubs.

His first album, 2017’s “Whispered on the Wind,” includes a track called “Lovers of Life,” which is a nod to the Tip Top Tavern, where a little sign at the door says “For Every True Lover of Life.”

There has been more travel — most notably, a trip to New Zealand to play at the wedding of friends he met in Scotland. Complications with his return ticket led to Ness spending time in Thailand and Cambodia, where a devious agent booked him for 23 dates in 26 days and then demanded his 30 percent agent’s fee up front. Broke, Ness traveled with just one extra shirt and pair of shorts tucked inside his guitar.

“Actually, it was liberating,” he said.

He’s done more recording, successfully, as the award nominations suggest. Yet the live shows bring the most reward.

“I learned it is something I need,” he said. “I connect to other people through my art. I love every live show, seeing new cities and connecting with people.”

One night last winter, Ness was at the Tip Top. It was late and bar time loomed. Ness had been thinking he should do a video of himself on the piano.

“I wanted a song I connected to,” he said.

Someone at the Tip Top flipped on Willie singing “On the Road Again.”

Ness had his piano song.

His version is unhurried, filled with longing.

“I was feeling nostalgic about my travels,” he said. “I hadn’t been out of the country for what seemed like a long time. The nostalgia slowed it down for me.”

Ness paused. “I do want to be back on the road.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.