Martha Fields sprang to our attention last year under the guise of Texas Martha who, along with her band, The House Of Twang, released Long Way From Home, a terrific album of pedal steel driven twangy Texan honky tonk songs. Fields is indeed a Texan but she recorded the album in France with French musicians with only the very occasional lyric sung in French signalling that Ms. Fields was more likely to be sipping a Bordeaux rather than quaffing a bottle of Lone Star. While the album was chockfull of barrelhouse road songs Fields reined it in on a couple of songs, most notably on Do As You Are Told, a song which verged on Southern Gothic. Tellingly this song reappears on Southern White Lies, an album which finds Fields reaching out to another aspect of her heritage, her mother’s Appalachian roots which lie deep in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Still based in France and still with her hotshot French pickers Fields forsakes the twang-fuelled telecasters and barrelling pedal steel for an acoustic set of numbers, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and Dobro fuelling the numbers. She refers to memories of back porch picking on her regular visits to her mother’s kinfolk but the music here is more muscular with bluegrass, blues and country all imbued with a Southern defiance, a sense of social justice, some God fearin’ good sense and a love of a good time. Fields has a gutsy voice that allows her to cover Janis Joplin’s What Good Can Drinkin’ Do You with some aplomb as you reckon she might be able to match Pearl drink for drink. The traditional Lonesome Road Blues and Jimmy Rodgers’ California Blues allow Fields and band to show that they can still summon up the lure of the road unplugged with both songs ripping along finely, the solos as acute here as they were on the chrome plated Texas numbers of the previous albums.
The western dream of sun kissed bliss that’s invoked in California Blues, a bluesy hobo’s dream of escape to the coast reminds the listener of the hardscrabble times that have hit the poor denizens of the rural south time and time again. Fields allows for that other form of escape via The Good Lord on her cover of the spiritual What Are They Doing In Heaven but elsewhere she’s fired up at the way common folk are treated. Over the course of seven songs she covers emotions ranging from despair (on the opening Soul On The Move) to a burning sense of anger on the title song. Do As You Are Told, Fields’ song about her aunt, retold from the previous album still packs a punch as it’s relayed this time as a frontier song, all rolling guitars, snake like Dobro and skirling fiddle. The closing song, American Hologram is perhaps the crowning achievement here as Fields and the band adopt a slight Texicana lilt, a cantina like tune that belies the anger behind the words. Here Fields spits out her diatribe against shock jocks who paint her people as poor white trash and politicians who use them as cannon fodder in foreign wars.
Southern White Lies is a brave album. One that packs a social message or as we used to say, protest songs but it’s no mere finger pointing. Fields has the sense to deliver her powerful words clothed in an incredibly attractive suit of rootsy finger picking. She’s not immune to the lure of the heart as heard in the fine and lilting Where Do We Go Now but overall she manages to combine the anthems of Woody Guthrie and the Southern documentation of Bobbie Gentry.
Good news is that Martha Fields makes her Scottish debut this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival.