Las Vegan Kashena Sampson makes her own way in country music’s capital

Sampson’s debut album. Wild Heart, is out August 18.
Photo: J. Rodgers / Courtesy

Kashena Sampson’s musical boot camp took place on a cruise ship. The singer-songwriter moved to Las Vegas just before high school, graduating from Las Vegas Academy and UNLV before heading to LA to pursue an acting career.

But it was Vegas connections, thanks to a UNLV classmate contacting Le Rêve musical director Michael Brennan, that landed her a gig performing on a high-end cruise line, where she spent three years singing everything from opera to ABBA, folk to Motown. “I was in LA serving omelets,” she remembers, “so when I had that choice, I was like, why wouldn’t I go and get paid to sing songs and eat steak with people and sit on the beach.”

After returning to shore, Sampson spent a year working at Downtown piano bar Don’t Tell Mama before taking her newly focused musical ambitions to Nashville, where she recently recorded her debut album, Wild Heart, out August 18. Although Rolling Stone recently named her one of “10 new country artists you need to know,” the 34-year-old isn’t entirely comfortable with the “country” label. “It’s been interesting for me to try to categorize my music for people,” she says, citing artists including Jim Croce, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Bobbie Gentry as influences. “I don’t really listen to anything that was made after the early ’80s.”

Still working as a bartender in Nashville, Sampson is operating without a record label, and she isn’t sure when she’ll get back to Vegas to perform. But with her whole family (including sister Jolana, who co-wrote several songs on Wild Heart) still in town, Sampson has strong Vegas roots. Every step in her musical career is new to her, and she’s taking each one as it comes. “I just kind of go with it, with life,” she says. “I’m learning a lot.”

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