She may be an adopted Texan who spends much of her time in southern France but Martha Fields grew up in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains and there’s a rich stream of southern soul running through her veins. Her first album, which saw her billed as Texas Martha, was a rollicking collection of honky tonk songs which barrelled along although there was a hint of her family roots in the menacing Do As You Are Told, a song which, tellingly enough, reappeared on her next album, Southern White Lies. Here she ditched the Texas Martha moniker as she delved into her roots, familial and musical, with the music a rich loam of powerful picking suffused with a burning sense of anger over the fate of what politicians often dismiss as poor white trash.
Dancing Shadows continues musically in a similar vein to Southern White Lies as Fields, with her excellent band, well road tested as they roam across Europe playing here, there and everywhere, also roam around various roots styles. Able to turn their hand to bluegrass, country rock, rockabilly and southern rockers, the band guide the album through its highways and byways. Fields meanwhile casts her net somewhat wider than on the previous album although at the heart of the disc she’s still delving into her history while there’s also a pronounced element of the exile commenting on news from home.
The album kicks off with the earthy punch of Sukey, the band in a muscular bluesy mood allowing Fields’ rich and emotive voice to ring out as she sings of a troglodyte Cherokee ancestor and recalls visiting her cave and watching her own shadow cast on the walls. Fields has always celebrated strong women, within and without her family, and here she maintains this while she goes on to celebrate other survivors as on the slinky Forbidden Fruit, which sees the band summoning up a mighty fine approximation of Little Feat syncopation. On Maxine a put upon daughter kicks off in delightful style as does the band on an energetic bluegrass influenced number and on Forbidden Fruit they again delve into swampy blues as Fields kicks out at aeons of masculine domination.
Fields addresses her position as an exile of sorts on several of the songs the most prominent being Exile where she sings of being a stranger in her own land. Paris to Austin is a delicate and tender number where she tries to reconcile her French sojourn with the realities of home, eventually settling for the idea that her music can bridge the oceanic gap while West Virginia In My Bones is a gutsier approach to her situation. Oklahoma On My Mind is more wistful with a sense of mortality about it as Fields just about sums up the ties which bind one to their homeland with lyrics evocative of John Ford westerns and Cormac McCarthy novels as the band lay down an excellently muted filigree of gentle guitar picking and atmospheric organ.
If the above paints Dancing Shadows as a “message” album, so be it as Fields surely has a message for this age but there’s tons to enjoy without getting too involved in the words. Demona is a high-spirited high plains morbid love song which has a wonderful coda where the band strike up a martial beat. Last Train to Sanesville harks back to the honky tonk romps of Texas Martha while Fare Thee Well Blues could have easily have been an original Carter Family song. Hillbilly Bop does just what it says on the tin as the band sashay and swing and Fields lets rip on the vocals (and having seen the band play it live it’s a definite crowd pleaser). Again, it has to be said that the band, all French dudes by the way, are just so good and Said And Done is a perfect example of their dexterity and ensemble playing in bluegrass style with solos coming fast and furious. The album closes with the wonderful Lone Wolf Waltz which finds Fields tying together Patti Page, Larry McMurtry, Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange as she wallows and waltzes through dust laden buffalo graveyard memories. Just wonderful.
On Dancing Shadows Martha Fields forges on as a fiery writer and performer who is fuelled by tradition and fired up by injustice. That she carries it off so well is testament to her and her band mates and they surely deserve more recognition.