Martha Fields. Dancing Shadows.

ok-martha-fields-cover-25-avril-2018-page-001-1She 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.

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Southern White stories. A chat with Martha Fields.

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Last October Blabber’n’Smoke was intrigued to receive a bona fide album of Texan tunes that was recorded in France. The album, Long Way From Home was billed as recorded by Texas Martha & The House of Twang and some investigating (well, reading the liner notes) revealed that while Texas Martha AKA Martha Fields was indeed from the Lone Star State the House Of Twang were all Frenchmen who appeared to have been steeped in the whys and wherefores of Americana.  Now Martha has her second album, Southern White Lies ready for release (we reviewed it here), again recorded with her expert Gallic pickers (Manu Bertrand -Dobro, banjo, mandolin, Serge Samyn -double bass, Olivier Leclerc -violin, Urbain Lambertguitar and Denis Bielsadrums). Southern White Lies reverses the urge to go West as Fields heads northeast to the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians, her mother’s homeland. Martha’s playing all over Europe to tie in with the album release and she and her band are making their first Scottish appearance this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. She took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the new album. First off however we asked her how a Texan musician comes to be living and recording in Bordeaux, France.

I’ve been coming over to Europe and to France in particular for the past four years after I was invited to play some festivals.  I have some friends who live around Bordeaux so I was invited to play here and I thought, “Wow, they like this kind of music over here” so I started to come over in the summer to escape the Texas heat and found that I really like the lifestyle. So just staying here and playing shows, I happened to meet some amazing players and eventually formed the band.

Your band are all French I believe.

They’re all French but they’ve been playing this kind of music since they were little bitty kids and they love it. They know more about the history and the trivia than I do. They live it and they are super players, they’ve played all over the world with some very well know French stars, Johnny Hallyday, Dick Rivers, stars for another generation but big names over here.

I’ve heard of Johnny Hallyday but not Dick Rivers.

Oh, he’s kind of like the French Elvis. He’s older now but he cut an album last year that I really like, he’s good.

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Was Long way From Home your first album?

It’s my first solo album but I’ve played with other bands and in various collaborations back in the States. I’ve been writing songs since I was six or seven years old but I had another career. I was a professor in Texas, teaching but I was always playing my music, weekends and such. But now I’ve taken a hiatus from that to concentrate on the music for the meantime. I can always go back to that when I’m 80 or so. In the meanwhile I’m having a great time and it’s working really well.

Long Way From Home got some fabulous reviews

I was really pleased. We got a lot of radio play all over the place. I was very happy with the album, it was Texas boogie most of the way but as you know I love folk music, that Appalachian thing as well and in my live show I do both and people seem to appreciate that variety. I was really pleased with the way Long Way From Home turned out but for this one I really wanted to show that other folkier side. Some folk might prefer the honky tonk songs, some the folkier ones but I want to express both aspects, who knows, it might help me gain a new audience because of this slightly different approach but overall this is me.

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Southern White Lies is quite different, the music’s acoustic, it draws from the Kentucky and Virginia Appalachian traditions with the cover art reflecting your memories of family playing on the front porch. Where did you get the inspiration for the songs you wrote for the album?

I usually always take it from real life, reflecting on things that have happened to my, my friends, my family, things that are happening politically. That’s how I’ve always dealt with things that I find joy in or sometimes pain, I set them to music.

There’s a thread going though the album, a sense of social justice. You see Southerners as being used and abused over the years, especially by politicians.

It’s happened to my family! Right now, there’s a lot of conflict going on, not just in the states, politically it’s a very difficult moment. I wrote two songs, American Hologram  and Southern White Lies maybe 12 to 18 months ago but I didn’t realise things were going to get this challenging. I’ve got family on both sides of the political spectrum and it can get really difficult to talk about these things over the kitchen table. I don’t think that people realise that we are all fodder for all these games that politicians play but we’re living it. I try to stay positive and one of the ways that I’m able to address it is through my music. I wrote a line in the title song that says, “pandering politicians, we need more musicians”. We need artists to really address what’s happening. If you think back to the sixties, there were a lot more artists singing about issues but there’s less of that these days, maybe because of the way the industry is these days. We don’t have much of a voice now and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.

The album isn’t all political. I redid my song about my aunt (Do As You Are Told) because when I wrote it I really had in mind more of a bluegrass feel although I suppose it is a political song in a way just because of her own life. But there are love songs, bluegrass, Gospel and there’s a good old drinking song.

The Janis Joplin cover (What Good Will Drinking Do You)?

Yes, you’ve got to have at least one drinking song. It’s life. We cry, we drink, we go to church, we do all these things so it’s really just a part of everyday life.

So are you bringing the whole band over to your appearances at Southern Fried?

Yes. The only one who’s not coming over is Oliver, the violin player. He’d already been booked for something else by the time we arranged to come over but the rest of us will be there. We are playing two shows, one on Friday evening and then late on the Saturday night. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s my first trip to Scotland and the festival line up looks amazing.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I look forward to seeing you in Perth.

As Martha says, she is playing two shows at Southern Fried with the Friday show on the free outdoor stage, an incredible opportunity to see an artist who in a short time has leapt to the forefront of rootsy American music. You can check her show times here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martha Fields. Southern White Lies

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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.

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Texas Martha and the House of Twang. Long Way From Home

Texas Martha AKA Marty Fields Galloway is certainly a long way from home on this album which is probably the first honky tonk album to be recorded in Bordeaux, France. Sure enough, she’s Texan through and through but she has a hankering for France and spends much of her time there and, much like a country music magnet, she’s attracted a hot shot bunch of continental players who together make up The House of Twang. These are guys who’ve done their homework, the rhythm section of Serge Samyn and Hervé Chiquet stoke the beat solidly while Lionel Duhaupas bends and twists and twangs his guitars and plays a mean pedal steel. Together they’re a formidable outfit with Galloway belting out her roadhouse songs but able also to rein it in and deliver some soulful country.

The album gets off to a great start with the rip snorting Born To Boogie, Galloway’s powerful voice galvanised by the curling pedal steel and twang fuelled guitar bursts over a pile driving rhythm; even her transition into French lyrics midway through, initially a surprise, works. Take You Down is in a similar vein, again the music is punchy and defiant as Galloway hymns the South but there’s a change in gear on the following title song which takes us away from the honky tonk and onto the freeway. There’s a brisk acoustic thrust to the song with harmonica (from Christophe Dupue) threading throughout while the pedal steel hums like a train coming along the tracks, altogether the sense is of the wide open road. A Lover’s Lane is more countrified, the pedal steel keening away as Galloway sings of the tribulations of a young girl suckered into a tryst and then judged. It’s a great song but the vocals are just a mite too powerful for the tender playing and the song could be better if there was a sense of hurt instead of defiance in her voice.

No problems however with Johanna, another sad luck song which is boosted by the organ playing of Vincent Samyn while Strike is a sinewy blues number with Martha ballsy as hell while the guitars snarl. The album closes with another foot to the pedal barrel house boogie on Gotta Move but before that there’s a brief excursion into Southern Gothic territory on the tremendous Do As You Are Told which comes across like the Violent Femmes backing Bobbie Gentry in a story penned by Flannery O’Connor.

Hopefully with Texas Martha berthed just across the channel we can hope to see her and her crack musicians in the UK at some point, Blabber’n’Smoke will keep you posted.

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