• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

A mom's love inspires a young fiddler to learn song

Spend an hour with Samantha Cunningham and her passion for playing fiddle becomes apparent. Ask the 20-year-old to get her fiddle for a photo, and she immediately starts playing what she describes as "a very expressive instrument." The Woodford County High School graduate has continued her maturation as a musician at Morehead State University's Kentucky Center for Traditional Music. There, she and other students express emotion in song while playing in Raymond McLain's big family of musicians. John Flavell, a really good friend and colleague of McLain's at Morehead State University, recently asked Samantha if she'd share a very personal story with two of his media students, Christina Holbert and Anna Nichols. They would spend the next three months documenting Samantha's journey to learn one of her mom's favorite songs, Fiddle Patch. The emotional story was first published in Morehead's student newspaper The Trail Blazer, and reprinted in The Daily Independent in Ashland and the Lexington Herald-Leader as well as online by Bluegrass Today. "I don't tend to share with people about things that are going on with my life," says Samantha. "But I think at that point in time," she continues, "I felt like: Maybe, I should let people know what's going on and this would be one way to do it." Born with congenital heart failure, Lisa Cunningham, Samantha's mother, was hospitalized in early December when Samantha started working with McLain on Fiddle Patch, a difficult-to-play song written by Dale Potter.

Lisa Cunningham died on Jan. 7, 2016 - before her daughter had finished learning Fiddle Patch, but Samantha was determined to play the fiddle tune as a tribute to her mom. "It was a healing process," says Cunningham. ".She always wanted me to play that song - and when she passed away I had three parts of it learned. And I never got to play any of it for her. So (through this process) it was kind of like: Well, I'm keeping her alive and keeping her song that she loved so much alive." Samantha surprised her dad when she performed Fiddle Patch - "(for) the very first time" - during a closing performance at the mid-semester ensemble concert by Kentucky Center for Traditional Music students. "It wasn't just the people in the (Rowan County Arts Center) who were erupting - I could feel that mom was there," says Samantha. "So I do think she's heard it." Mark Cunningham gives Daniel Carwile a lot of credit for challenging his daughter as a musician in her teens, but says Samantha was not ready to learn Fiddle Patch when he was her teacher. "It was time now," he adds. Samantha typically plays Fiddle Patch and shares the very personal story of why she learned the tune at "almost every show." Pointing to the backyard of her family's Versailles home, Samantha says, "That hammock out there became my best friend," while learning how to play an earlier song especially for her mom. Bluegrass in the Backwoods - "a Kenny Baker tune that she really liked." Samantha will begin her junior year at Morehead State University in the fall, and graduate in two years with a degree in traditional music with an emphasis in bluegrass and country fiddle. "Ultimate dream is to go on the road, be a big name - be . a household name," says Samantha. And if a career as a musician doesn't work out, she will use a master's degree in business administration to pursue a career in the business world, preferably in the music industry. "I love music so much, but business is my second love," says Samantha, who also plays guitar, mandolin and sings. "Who knows what God's got in store for her at this point because I know it takes more than talent. There's certainly breaks and connections and all that," acknowledges Mark Cunningham, "but I believe she's on the path (to a music career) the way she's developing" as a musician. Lisa and Mark Cunningham recognized their daughter's gift for playing fiddle at an early age. "God has given her a gift and we're just trying to help her find His path for her," said Mark during a 2010 interview. Samantha began taking lessons from Versailles violin teacher Claire Hess shortly before she turned 6 years old. Her mom agreed to the lessons, but only after Samantha agreed to give up gymnastics. She did - without hesitation. "I had grown up going to bluegrass festivals," explains Samantha. "And I'd seen a lady named Alison Krauss - and I wanted to be Alison Krauss. And that's what I told my mom." Samantha competed in numerous fiddle competitions before graduating from Woodford County High School, winning awards in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. She spent her summers at the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp. Samantha now performs with the Morehead State Mountain Music Ambassadors. Besides their concerts in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and elsewhere in the United States, these young musicians from Morehead State University performed for thousands in China last summer and quickly discovered they "absolutely loved" hearing bluegrass music there. "It was a huge deal," says Samantha, who also plays with Morehead's country music ensemble, Southland Drive, a duo with Will Padgett called "The Will and Sam Band" and her own band, Firegate 33, as well as a band fronted by friend and banjo player Michelle Canning, who came to Morehead State from her native Boston. The Mountain Music Ambassadors have opened for Dale Ann Bradley and the Gibson Brothers. Samantha and Padgett have opened for country music legend John Conlee at a concert benefiting the Food Pantry for Woodford County. "Through John Conlee I met a lot of great people - musicians who have been in the industry," says Samantha, who has also shared a stage with Sam Bush and Sierra Hull, and recently met one of her all-time heroes, Marty Stuart. While she enjoys playing music from a variety of genres to "expand my horizons," Samantha says, "Country music is what I really love to do. I love to play country fiddle." Because there's not a lot of fiddle music in today's country, Samantha says, "You've got to find - what we call our purple cow," which would certainly stand out in a field of other cows. Because Samantha wants "to be able to do my own stuff as well," she's now working to establish her own publishing company so she can sell music she's penned. Samantha was writing a song before being interviewed last week, and was leaving for a rehearsal with Southland Drive after the interview. So it's easy to see why she can't imagine the fiddle and music not being a part of her life. "I will never look back and say, 'I've wasted 14 years of my life and all of these hours playing music,' because this is something I'm going to be able to keep doing for the rest of my life," says Samantha. And she really appreciates experiencing new music alongside other musicians. "Someone might throw something new that you haven't heard before. Where did that come from? Do it again! Because everyone gets together and everyone puts everything into it," says Samantha, who's now sharing her passion as a musician by giving private lessons to students - young and old. She says a musician's best audiences are those audiences that respond to what's being played onstage and those who laugh at jokes between songs - even if they're not that funny. For additional information about Samantha and upcoming performances, including her band's season-closing show at the Southland Jamboree in Lexington on Monday, Sept. 5, visit www.samanthacunningham.band. There, visitors can also access videos, including one documenting her musical journey to learning Fiddle Patch as a tribute to her mom.

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