It’s been a while since we heard from Martha Fields, Texas Martha to her friends, a fine songwriter who, strangely enough, manages to conjure her Appalachian and southern soul influenced songs while ensconced in France where she is ably aided and abetted by her very own continental version of Emmylou’s Hot Band.
Headed South is the latest in a series of albums Fields has recorded in France which have no hint of their provenance, it’s as if she had transported Nashville to Bordeaux. Her band are well versed (actually, expert) in picking and swinging on all sorts of stringed instruments which would normally be found lying around on the Opry stage and, if you’ve had the opportunity to see them live, they do indeed, kick ass. Fields herself is a fiery performer and her gutsy qualities transfer well to disc as when she and the band rock into the rollicking honky tonk come country swing of Laveda’s Lounge, the third song here and one which you could imagine Phil Alvin’s Blasters having a go at.
The album opens on a much mellower note with the sweeping title song which finds Fields once again examining her southern roots as the band lay down a soulful country glide. Next, there’s a deep dive into that southern territory as she heads for the swamplands on the spooky Let The Phoenix Rise. A later number, Hillbilly Babylon, is akin to her earlier songs regarding her family heritage such as Do As You are Told and is delivered with a tremendous sense of verve as it progresses from its mountain fiddle and martial drums opening to a limber guitar solo and a bustling country rock ending. Meanwhile, there’s a fine ribald edge to the sinewy In My Garden which recalls the late Dan Hicks with its gypsy fiddle and sinuous Dobro and slide guitars.
There’s a fine sense of light and shade to the album. Aside from Laveda’s Lounge, there’s the menacing strut of Death Rattle Of Love with its fiery guitars while High Shelf Mama is an old-fashioned blues boogie with Fields channelling the likes of Big Mama Thornton. Set against these is the yearning ballad Yellow Roses and the soul searching reminiscing of Souvenir, a tremendous song on which the band excel as organ and guitar gradually swell towards the end. Do More Right is a high flying string band skirl which finds Fields railing against our current overlords and there are more contemporary comments on the mannered side step into vaudeville which is Bad Boy.
There’s a wonderful surprise at the end of the album as Fields offers her version of J’entends Siffler Le Train, a hit by the sixties French pop star, Richard Anthony. He in turn, borrowed his version from the great American folk canon where the song is generally known as 100 Miles. Fields sings the song in French and English and she and the band lay it down in a manner not too dissimilar from that of the late Gene Clark. It’s a cool end to a great album.