They say dress for the job that you want. And one look at Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats onstage, you know that they want to be a classic country band. They’ve got the cowboy hats, neatly embroidered Western shirts, and of course, boots.
They certainly are, right there on the set list amidst more familiar country fare (though with a bit of a deeper cut) by Dwight Yoakam, Freddy Fender, Rosanne Cash, Charlie Rich, John Anderson, Jeanne Pruett and Billy Joe Shaver.
For lead singer/rhythm guitarist Sam Turner, the sonic potpourri is right in step with his mindset. “What I Iistened to growing up is kind of reflected in our set list. A lot of George Strait, but also the Beatles and Otis Redding. That’s what stuck with me,” he says.
Turner was raised in Sugar Land and went to Dulles High School (“Well,” he offers, “I went sometimes!”) before moving to Houston at the age of 18. His introduction to instruments came via his stepfather’s family, specifically a step brother-in-law who played guitar and gifted young Sam with a set of harmonicas.
The extended family would often gather at a home in the Fredericksburg, where impromptu and informal concerts were frequent occurrences. “My [stepbrother-in-law] was really into Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and all these Texas songwriters, and we’d sit out on the back porch in the Hill Country and play guitars and sing songs,” he says.
Playing harmonica was an easy way for Turner to join in, but he was soon asking for a mandolin (figuring it was easier to learn than a guitar) before quickly graduating to that latter instrument and figuring out what to do with it.
“I learned really from just listening to songs and playing them. My stepbrother-in-law would show me the G, C, and D chords, and I’d find 10 songs to play that only used those chords. And then I’d very slowly add more!” Turner laughs. “But as long as I can strum and sing at the same time, I’m good!”
One of them, Michael Trakhtenberg, showed up with a guitar. Later, W.D. Hesser let Turner in on something. “He’d be hanging around at the sessions and after about a month, he told me ‘You know I play bass.’ He never said anything to me before!” Turner says.
The quartet then coalesced as Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats, playing their first gig in 2014 and releasing debut record Wanna Be Your Man in 2017. The band’s lineup sometimes expands during gigs with Kevin Skrla on steel guitar and new guy Josh Artall on keyboards. Their most recent album is last year’s Rodeo Hound.
But even with their covers, the band wants to put their own stamp on the tunes.
“Just because we’ve been playing together for so long and found our groove, any song we do has just a taste of us, maybe puts a little more swing to it,” he says. “Our style just comes out. We don’t want to try to be just [copycats]. And I’m definitely no Otis Redding!”
Just as important as those songs, though, are Turner’s original songs blended into their set lists like “GS Lament,” “Suzanne,” “Pusher,” “Baby What a Shame,” “Night by Night” and “If You Change Your Mind.” Turner explains his songwriting process.
“I’ve been trying to lean into the more storytelling side of things. But it’s usually just me sitting down with a guitar and messing around until something clicks. Once I have the melody and the groove down, then I’ll focus on the words,” he says. “I’ll take it to Troy and he’ll put his touch on it. He’s got a real knack for instrumental [aspects].”
Of course, in 2023, any smart local band (or any for that matter) needs to seize on the many avenues and channels of social media and music websites to get their music out there to potential listeners, customers, and concertgoers. Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats are out there in that world. Sort of.
“Social media is definitely huge, but we’re not really great at it!” he laughs. “We’re kind of waiting for someone to come along and offer to run it for us! But when we have new songs coming out, we try to push it and have made a few videos. For us, the way we get new fans is go out and play shows. I still think that’s the only way to really do it. It’s different seeing someone live than watching them on a shitty iPhone recording.”
As for now, Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats are gigging around town at places like Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge and Shady Acres. They’ve also got two new singles nearly ready for release in the late summer or early fall.
And if you’re looking for a job in music social media, you might just want to give them a holler.
For more on Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats, visit SamandtheCatz.com