LAS VEGAS – If all goes according to plan, sometime between spring and summer Sam Riddle – the same Sam Riddle who a few years ago would tickle fans and sometimes irritate his coaches on basketball courts in Missoula – will release a country song or three to radio stations across the country.
He just needs them to be the right songs.
Riddle is making his run at the big time.
To the surprise of absolutely no one who knows him, Riddle is charting his own somewhat unorthodox course in the world of country music, aided in part by lessons he soaked up as a youngster from his father, Steve, a member of Montana’s legendary Mission Mountain Wood Band.
On one road-less-traveled front, Riddle had no choice. Most country singer-songwriters originate in the South, but the Missoula native loudly and proudly claims his Montana roots.
“Have you been to the South?” he asks. “There’s so many people down there. Montana is real country. It’s got the nicest people, and life is about fishin’ and huntin’ and rodeoin’ and floatin’ the river and goin’ to Griz football games – the kind of things country music is all about.”
But in other aspects, Riddle is deliberately doing this his way. Where most other country singers strike out for Nashville to try to break into the big time, Riddle is making his run 1,600 miles away from the home of the Grand Ole Opry, here in Las Vegas, a town he knows oh-so-well after years spent playing piano gigs six to seven nights a week in its lounges and hotels.
And that’s another thing that sets Riddle apart in his new genre.
Where most country singers – if they play any instrument at all – strap a guitar around their neck, Riddle jumps on a piano and just about pummels it to death.
That’s both a totally accurate and completely misleading statement. There are times, when he gets on a roll, you’d swear he was playing the piano with 10 hammers instead of 10 fingers.
Just imagine the hammers pounding all the right keys at the right time, and you’ll get the idea.
Riddle, who occasionally does strum chords on a guitar on other numbers – “I’m learning,” he allows – has attracted the attention of some serious songwriters and first-call musicians.
“He brings a certain element you don’t see from a lot of performers in Vegas,” says guitarist James Caselton, one of five band members backing Riddle’s Vegas shows. “The first time I saw his show, I wasn’t expecting what I saw. A lot of performers put on the suit and go through the motions, but I felt with Sam I was seeing the real deal. His gig is all about heart. He brings a rare kind of energy.”
His drummer and band leader, Billy Carmody, says he calls what he’s involved in a project, and not a band.
“It’s nice to wake up every day to something that’s promising,” Carmody says. “Sam’s not just a singer, he’s a musician, and that makes a difference.”
You could retreat, if you wanted to, 30 years to find the starting point for Riddle’s country music career. That’s when he started playing piano, at the age of 2.
But really, the country part began just a few months ago, in March.
Riddle had bounced around like the basketballs he used to dribble for the Montana Grizzlies, a program he left in 2003 after appearing in 88 games over three seasons.
He’d played pro ball in Puerto Rico, piano gigs from Omaha to Missoula to Vegas, gotten married and divorced, had a daughter in between, moved to Utah, gone back to college, done some coaching, was a finalist for the job of athletic director at a junior college in Utah.
“I was lost,” Riddle says. “I knew if I figured out how to be myself and put it into one thing, it’d be huge. Over the years I thought about baseball, basketball, dancing, singing, coaching, being a math teacher – I even thought about being a fireman.
“Finally, one day, I’m driving down the road and boom! It just smacked me in the face. It’s one of those moments that are very rare, where you can see years ahead. I knew the way I wanted to sound, look, how I wanted to market myself. I went home and bam, wrote a song, and it all made perfect sense. I knew if I can’t make it in this, I can’t make it in anything.”
The lounge-playing piano player some people thought should try to be the next Harry Connick Jr. decided he instead wanted to be the next Garth Brooks.
He returned to Vegas, wrote more songs, sold his vision to other musicians, and soon was headlining at casinos like Texas Station.
“One of the ways you start to make it work is to build a local following, and that’s the hardest thing to do in Vegas,” Riddle says. “It’s such a touristy, transient spot, and there are so many things for people to do here. Walk 20 yards in any direction and you can find something else.”
So Riddle and his band auditioned at what are called “station casinos,” located away from the bright lights of downtown and the Strip.
“No locals ever, ever go to the Strip,” Riddle says. “Station casinos are where they go to gamble, to go to the movies, to eat, to dance. They have amazing showrooms with state-of-the-art sound.”
Riddle did all originals at his Texas Station audition – “Very ballsy,” he says. “Nobody does that here – everybody covers everything” – and when he assured them he too could cover just about anything from “Chicken Fried” to “Friends in Low Places,” got the still-running gig.
Since then, he’s also opened for Luke Bryan in front of 10,000 fans at the Red Rock Resort Amphitheater – “Just me and a piano on the stage,” Riddle says. “The most nervous I’ve ever been” – and commuted between Vegas and Nashville to write more songs with some important names in country music.
From those, they hope, will come the breakout hit that will propel Riddle through what his father calls “the cellophane ceiling.”
Steve Riddle – “My biggest influence,” Sam says – has to chuckle at how much the music industry has changed since the Mission Mountain Wood Band took its run at the big time in the 1970s.
“We were one of the biggest-touring, highest-paid nobodies on the planet,” says Steve, who came to Las Vegas with Sam’s mother, Mary Ann, this past week while Sam headlined at The Mirage for four straight nights during the National Finals Rodeo.
M2WB remains a legend, but the legend doesn’t go much beyond Montana’s borders, even though the band certainly did.
“We were all young Montana boys who had never seen the world,” Steve says. “We bought our own bus and traveled to every corner of the country, put 2 1/2 million miles on it in 10 years, a time that turned us from boys into men. But in doing so – the road could burn you out. We spent all our youth burning ourselves out, and never broke through the cellophane and got to be a huge, historic band. We never got to be the Grateful Dead, we never got to be the Eagles. We never got to be THE band.”
The key to making it big, Riddle says, “is to have that radio hit, and you do that by recording and finding ways to stay alive while you’re in the studio. You don’t get it banging around on a bus playing 300 cities a year for a decade. One of the things Sam learned from us is that it’s not going to happen if you’re climbing on a bus and going to Des Moines and Lincoln and Denver and wherever else, and when you get home you’re burned out and you really haven’t gotten anywhere.”
No, the time to tour is after the big radio hit.
“Sam wants that big bus and truck hauling the gear,” Steve says. “But he can look at Mission Mountain Wood Band and see, we’d leave Montana for Charlotte, N.C., and play to 50 people. We’d come back a year later and there would be 1,000. We’d come back a year after that and there’d be 5,000, and we’d think we’d really done something.”
The better option, Steve says: “Have that one radio hit, go to Charlotte, N.C., and draw 50,000 the first time you’re there.”
Sam Riddle has traveled to Nashville to write with one of the foremost country music stars associated with the piano, Phil Vassar – who has penned hits for Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson, among others – plus Tim Ryan (the St. Ignatius native) and Charlie Black.
“They’ve written some amazing stuff,” Steve says. “But they want the song they release to reporting radio stations to be just the right one, to match Sam’s energy onstage.”
The rest would go on the album that follows if the songs take off. That Vassar, who owns his own label and publishing house, believes the younger Riddle is on the verge of stardom, tells you something, Steve says.
“What I am most proud of, as a father,” Steve says, “is that Sam has built this all himself. I had nothing to do with any of it.”
Well, Sam did grow up in a house where “you either took piano lessons, or you moved out and got your own apartment,” Steve says.
“My dad always said piano money was the easiest money there is,” Sam says. “He said you could break down in any city in the world, or run out of gas, and if you could find a place with a piano, you could make enough to fix your car or fill the tank.”
And when his basketball-loving son finally came to the realization that “the NBA isn’t interested in a 6-foot, freckle-faced, red-headed kid,” Steve says, Dad was there with some advice.
“You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do,” Steve says, “and while you’re deciding, you need to put gas in your car and get an apartment, or get out of town, spread your wings. Whichever, you’ve got to have some jingle in your pocket. Let me show you how easy it can be to keep gas in your car.”
The father-son duo started playing gigs in the Missoula area – Sam on piano, Steve on bass – covering songs made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
With a little “jingle” in his pocket, on the first week of January 2006, the younger Riddle headed for Omaha, Neb., where his friend J.R. Casillas – now a Missoula attorney – was attending law school at Creighton University.
“My first night there we go to Harrah’s on the river in Omaha,” Riddle says, “to a place on the top floor with a grand piano and a full sound system.”
No one was playing that night. Casillas nudged his friend and uttered a half-dare.
“You don’t pay for anything while you’re here if you walk up and play one song.”
Riddle accepted the challenge. Asked no one’s permission, just walked up, sat down, turned the microphone on and started playing piano and singing something.
“Billy Joel? Someone else? Who knows,” Riddle says. “But pretty quick the whole bar was clapping, and suddenly I started to get requests, people bringing up $5 bills and asking for Elton John or whatever. I played for like an hour, made a bunch of tips, people kept sending me drinks, and when I was done the manager came over and asked me if I lived here.”
Nope, Riddle answered, but when the manager said that was too bad, because he would have offered Riddle a job, Riddle changed his tune.
“I threw a big-money number at him, or at least what I thought was big, and the guy said, ‘Done,’ ” Riddle says. “I played three nights a week, stayed for three months and J.R. and I had the time of our lives. I was away from Montana, there was no more basketball, and it was such a different world. It was almost like I felt freedom for the first time.”
Basketball had been Sam’s life for as long as he could remember.
Not long after he was born, the Riddles moved to New York City, and that’s where Sam grew up until they returned to Missoula when Sam was in the seventh grade.
In New York, you earned your street cred on the playground, not the piano.
“When I was little, I kept the piano and music under wraps,” Riddle says. “I was trying to be that Mr. Basketball Man. When you’re short, white and have freckles in New York, you’ve got to come with attitude.”
Even in Missoula as a teenager, when he’d put on a tux and go to work playing piano at the country club, “I lived in fear someone I knew would see me,” Riddle says.
He chose basketball over baseball, Riddle says, because “baseball didn’t move fast enough for me.”
“Basketball provided a stage for me to perform,” he says. “And that’s the only reason I played. It was a stage where I could make people happy, and that’s what I like to do, and tried to do. I got a bad rap for trying to have fun and put on a show. But I always thought basketball was what I was supposed to do.”
He starred at Hellgate High School, where the last shot of his prep career came as he hung in the air from 15 feet away with two seconds to play – in a game in which he was 1-for-9 from the field to that point – and caught nothing but net. The bucket sank Helena, 42-40, in the consolation game of the State Class AA Tournament.
“You have to give Riddle credit,” Helena coach Steve Keller said at the time. “That’s just a great shot by a great player.”
Outside of his father, Riddle says the person who has influenced him most was his high school coach, Eric Hays.
“I respect him more than anybody,” Riddle says. “He’s the reason I’m a man, and not a boy running around like an idiot all the time.”
Hays knew when to let Sam be Sam, and when to rein him in, Riddle says.
So one night in Omaha, someone comes up while Riddle is playing piano and tells him he could be making good money doing the same thing in Vegas.
He had no intention of spending the rest of his life playing piano in Omaha, so Riddle bought a minivan and headed for Nevada.
He crashed on the couch of former Lady Griz basketball player Laura Valley, and headed out to look for piano work.
“I took one look at the Strip, and thought, ‘There’s no way I can do this,’ ” Riddle says. “It was way bigger than I imagined. But I made demos, put together folders, and walked up and down the strip handing them out.”
Starting at the far end of Las Vegas Boulevard, at Mandalay Bay, Riddle hiked down the Strip in search of work.
“I was wearing a suit ’cause I thought Vegas was like ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ ” Riddle says. “It took me all week, and I had blisters before I was done.”
Several days later, he got a call. He had an audition at the Hilton.
“They said to go in the lobby, sit down at the piano and play for 10 minutes,” Riddle says. “No one says anything to you. I go in and there’s this big white grand piano, so I sit down, play a couple of Sinatra tunes, and a guy comes up and says, ‘Are you Sam Riddle? You’re hired. You start next week, six nights a week.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, baby, I got a
One thing led to another, until Riddle almost had more work than he did hours in a day.
“I kept working my way up in money, working six to seven nights for 4 1/2 years straight with no time off,” Riddle says. “There were days I’d play Planet Hollywood from 1 to 7 (p.m.), go to the Luxor and go from 9 to 1 in the morning, then go someplace else and play late-night jazz till 4:30 in the morning.”
But, Riddle says, “I was never comfortable.”
Now, he says he is. Part of staying in his comfort zone involves avoiding basketball, save for watching NBA games on TV.
“I’ll pick up a ball once in a while and say hello, but then I put it right back down,” Riddle says. “I don’t play anymore.”
If there’s a slam dunk in his future, Riddle says it’s in country music, and he’s not letting anything distract from that.