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Martha Fields - Southern White Lies (Self Release)
Martha Fields is a Texan, currently resident in France, with deep Appalachian roots and an impressive grasp of the central tropes of American roots music. SOUTHERN WHITE LIES is her second album but you'll need to search under her former pseudonym of Texas Martha to find her first. With this name change came a distinctive revision in musical policy, so while her earlier release explored the classic sounds of Texan Honky-tonk, SOUTHERN WHITE LIES reaches back to her ancestral and musical roots in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The songs deal with some deeply personal issues and dark emotions but there’s also room for the occasional burst of good humour.
Fields has gathered together a terrific band of acoustic musicians to realise this new material. The core ensemble of violin, bass fiddle, dobro and occasional mandolin reveal exceptional musicianship throughout a combination of old time bluegrass, country, and blues styles and Martha's rough-hewn, careworn vocals sit powerfully atop the sweet string band sounds. The combination should perhaps jar but on the rare times it does it's by design and to the benefit of the material.
At the core of this collection are three original songs that trace the American working class experience through the album's two significant geographical locations – Appalachia and Texas. The title track rails against pandering politicians and the creeping capitalism represented by the paradigm of ‘big box’ stores obliterating the 'mom and pops'. Do As You Are Told is the moving story of one Letha May Fields, born one of ten siblings in the 1920s and whose refusal to adhere to the prevailing patriarchy led to an untimely and undignified end. American Hologram is a powerful indictment of the redneck culture's tendency to go against its own self-interests at the bidding of conservative 'blue dog democrats'. There’s a justified sense of righteous indignation evident both in the lyrics of these core tracks and in Fields' delivery.
As with any great album, where there’s light there must also be shade. Janis Joplin's What Good Can Drinkin' Do? and Jimmie Rodgers' California Blues, amongst other notable examples, offer some relative respite from the intensity of the core tracks. The Methodist hymn What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? is the perfect vehicle for Martha and band to demonstrate their mastery of the classic high lonesome style.
The album's only negative quality is in its running order which tends to sandwich the faster songs in the middle with the slower tracks at the beginning and end. It's a pity because there's a five-star album desperately struggling to escape this awkward programming. That said, taken as a collection of individual, exceptionally realised songs, or better still experienced on shuffle mode where the slower tracks have a decent chance to breathe between the more up-tempo numbers, SOUTHERN WHITE LIES is an engrossing and thought provoking album of fine American roots music.