Country music,” says Sam Riddle. “It’s a place for me to be myself.”
“The first time I stepped out on stage in a hat and boots, and started rippin’ on the piano, I knew I’d found what I was supposed to do.” Not basketball or baseball, not crooning Sinatra tunes at a grand piano. But delivering torqued-up, hard-driving country music. Whether pouncing off the stage, pummeling the piano or twanging into the mic, “born to love country,” Riddle is part athlete, part showman, and all musician.
After nearly a decade in Las Vegas, Riddle brings his country show home Aug. 18, performing in Kalispell for the opening night of the Northwest Montana Fair. “It’s the hottest new act out there,” says country star Phil Vassar.
Riddle estimates the last time he played music in Montana was 2004 when he and his father did “a little jazz thing” together, Sam on piano, Steve on bass. What’s coming next certainly ain’t no jazz thing!
Life Lesson #1: “Do it because you can”
Riddle, whose father, Steve, was one of the founders of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, is a self-described “chip off the ol’ block of wood.”
He came into the world as his father’s fabled band was beginning to fall apart. The Riddle family moved from Montana to New York City, where Steve’s older brother, Dick Riddle, was a composer. “Through my uncle’s hook-ups, my parents got some really great gigs,” he says.
Because his mother, Mary Ann, worked for playwright Neil Simon for awhile, Broadway openings were part of his childhood, “or my dad was taking me to a bluegrass fest in the middle of nowhere.”
With a head of flaming red hair, grown into “a nice big Afro,” he sometimes worked as a child model. And always, there was a piano. “I was 2 when I started banging on it,” he says. “It was my first thing. My earliest memory in the world was playing piano and singing.”
His father would always insist he play when friends came by for dinner. When Sam would protest, or ask why, his dad replied, “You have to because you can. The worst thing you can do in your life is waste a gift you’ve been given.”
Life Lesson #2: “Anytime I stop being me it never works out”
Montana was always home. “Every single summer we made our way back,” says Riddle. Finally, when he was in seventh grade, they returned to Missoula, where the kid with red hair and a New York accent had trouble fitting in. “All the kids in New York City thought I was country as heck, and when I moved to Missoula they thought I was super city.”
Music and basketball became his refuge. “Those were the two things I escaped to. I was either dribbling or playing the piano.”
Dribbling paid off. “Baseball was my best sport, but basketball provided a stage,” he says. “I could make people feel I was doing things nobody had ever seen.”
It also remedied his outsider status. He became a basketball star at Hellgate High and earned a Division-1 full-ride scholarship to play for the University of Montana Grizzlies. “When I picked UM it was a program transitioning and I wanted to be part of that,” he says. “I had just gotten comfortable in Missoula.”
He moved on after three seasons, played pro ball in Puerto Rico, and was on his way to Europe when he stopped in Omaha to visit a friend from Missoula who was going to law school there. They went out for a few drinks at a place equipped with a grand piano, and his friend offered to foot the bill if he’d play a few songs.
He sat down, turned on the mic, and started to play. Afterwards, the manager offered “what seemed like a ton of money” for a steady gig. He stayed three months and put his basketball career on hold.
The next stop was Vegas. He donned a suit and plied the Strip, looking for work. “By the next week I was playing seven nights a week. At 25 I was the youngest guy in town doing it.” He was perched at a grand piano in a three-piece suit, singing songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Elton John and Ray Charles.
“But I knew I didn’t want to do it forever,” he says. “Anytime I stop being me it never works out. I end up sittin’ on the bench, so to speak.”
Life Lesson #3: “Make sure the music and the message are right”
Riddle started writing songs and “they were as country as you could possibly get.”
“I love every kind of music,” he adds. “But country music chose me.”
He traveled to Nashville, where he crafted songs with Vassar, Montana native Tim Ryan and Charlie Black. Back in Vegas, he began to play “station casinos,” the places locals go for entertainment. Before long, he was headlining four casinos a week, delivering a three-hour show of original songs. He put together a band of “guys that not only play the way I need them to play, but they’re good people too.”
Agents were interested, “but I realized I needed to be patient. I realized they were trying to make me into something I wasn’t.”
When the right agent arrived, a veteran Nashville producer with the same goal, “to go forward and keep it real,” Riddle was ready. Talent, discipline and vision all began to coalesce.
He’s spending more time in Los Angeles than Las Vegas these days, and wrote and recorded 30 new songs last summer. The goal, he says, is to find the right song, and release it at the right time. “You wanna hold back. Make sure the brand is correct, the music and the message are exactly right, that all the pieces are in place, so when we hit, we come at the world full force.”
He opened for Hank Williams Jr. in Salt Lake City this summer (“it’s a bucket-list thing for me”), and within five years, hopes to be selling out stadiums.
Is there some ego in that? A little, perhaps. But Riddle says his dream hearkens back to his father’s message: “It’s not about me, it’s about using what I’ve been given to reach out and better people’s lives. It’s about living life to its fullest and enjoying each moment.”
And for the former Grizzly basketball star, it’s also a homage to home. “I always strive to be someone my home state of Montana can be proud of.”
He’s looking forward to playing his first gig in Montana as a country artist. “I can’t wait to feel the energy of being under the sky I grew up under, to be around people I know and love.”
And down the road, he hopes, Sam Riddle tunes will become part of Montana’s soundtrack. “When you’re coming up on Glacier Park on Highway 2, what song will you put on? I’m hoping it’s mine.”
Riddle kicks off the Northwest Montana Fair at 8 p.m. Aug. 18; Luke Dowler and Stoll Vaughan open the show. Order tickets online or call 406-758-5810.
– Kristi Niemeyer