Interviews

Lee Fields Is a Forward-Looking Throwback

Steve Knopper
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

"A lot of people think soul music is just a way you sing, or a sound -- soul music means coming from the spirit. The soul is a spirit,” says Fields.

On the cover of Lee Fields’ album “Let’s Talk It Over,” the soul singer poses in a bell-bottomed, black-and-white leisure suit that is extraordinary even by 1979 standards — the pattern suggests an endless jigsaw puzzle of triangles and rectangles, or H.R. Giger at his most cosmic. “Oh, yeah,” he says with a laugh. “My mother made that suit.”

The suit deserves a Soul Music Hall of Fame exhibit, but Fields can’t recall what happened to it. “First of all, I gained a little weight,” says the frontman for the Expressions, who made 2016’s fantastic throwback album “Special Night.” “I had it hanging up around the house and one day I decided to try it on. I said (to my wife), ‘Baby, look what the cleaners did to this suit, they should be ashamed of themselves.’ She said, ‘That’s not the cleaner.’ She poked at my stomach: ‘That’s what you did, right there.’”

Fields, 66, has been singing professionally since he left his North Carolina home at 17 to make it as a singer in New York. He put out several singles, beginning with “Bewildered” in 1969, and collected them on “Let’s Talk It Over” 10 years later. Although he made plenty of money on tour, he switched to real estate in the early ‘80s, when disco and its various electronic spin-offs made his classic soul-man style briefly obsolete. Ten years ago, he came back, hooking up with producer and saxophonist Leon Michels, the backbone of the Expressions, who framed Fields’ restrained style within the perfect pocket.

Asked to discuss his chemistry with the Expressions, who also include drummer Homer Steinweiss, guitarists Thomas Brenneck and Sean Solomon and bassist Quincy Bright, Fields expands to a discussion of soul music in general. “A lot of people think soul music is just a way you sing, or a sound — soul music means coming from the spirit. The soul is a spirit,” says the deeply religious Fields by phone while returning from visiting family in Virginia to his New Jersey home. “When God took a breath through the nostrils of Adam, he became a living soul. And he was a man, so he was a soul man.”

“Soul music is about love, man. It’s about all human beings being able to live on this earth, which is a spaceship floating through the cosmos,” he continues. “It’s a marvelous ship, so if we love each other, we’ll be able to make this journey. (It) might take 100 generations to get there, but we’ll get there. … If we remain calm and care about one another, chances are we’re going to get to that destination, and love is the fuel for that.”

The band’s 2014 album, “Emma Jean,” was a personal album named for Fields’ mother, a seamstress who died in 1992; last year’s “Special Night” is more universal. The songs are about letting in the Lord and loving his wife, and the Expressions punctuate his smooth choruses with urgent horn-section bleats, organ jams and brief, melodic guitar solos. Its emotional centerpiece is the people-coming-together “Make the World,” which closes with Fields — once known as “Little JB,” after James Brown — shouting “Good gawd!”

That song came to Fields in a dream. “It was more or less like a nightmare, at the beginning,” he recalls. “I dreamed I took a road into the future and I saw the world very much in chaos — it was anarchy and pollution, and the waters and the air were polluted. There was mutation, because everything was in such disarray. And it was so frightening.

“I woke up out of that nightmare. I went back to sleep and I had basically the same dream,” he continues. “But this time, instead of everything being polluted, and anarchy and total disarray, the foliage of the trees was nice and green, and the water was clear and people were getting along with each other. It was so beautiful, man. It was like a heavenly garden. I tried to make sense out of the dream so I came up with the song.”

“Special Night,” the song, is a tribute to Fields’ wife of 47 years, and the album has a running theme of married people being kind and considerate to each other. (And perhaps they interrupt their relationship with the occasional “yeeeoooow!”) “Every night has been a special night with us. It doesn’t have to be a night of roses or a night of special dinners. It has to be a night that you always remember to appreciate your other half,” he says. “I try to write songs to promote togetherness. That was the theme song of the album.”

Fields may no longer have the patterned 1979 leisure suit, but he and the Expressions dress just as immaculately on stage. (Fields, especially in the summer, sweats through his coats, so he brings a “very large wardrobe” on tour.) “The dressing aspect of it is very much part of our thing,” he says. “We try to be as dapper as possible. If you’re going to be out there representing, you’re supposed to be looking like you’re representing.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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