Lou ShieldsAn interview with Americana original, Lou Shields
by Mike Huberty
Old-school Americana artist Lou Shields is a recent Wisconsin transplant who has been touring the world for years. Originally from Chicago, Lou recreates the sound of an era before Modern Pop and Rock n’ Roll. While originally influenced by modern artists from MISFITS to MY BLOODY VALENTINE, he’s taken up the mantle of a style that predates Billboard and American Bandstand, before superstars and music moguls. It’s the tradition of the traveling troubadour singing for his supper. While growing up in Chicago and spending much of his adult life on the road, he’s recently relocated to a cabin on a homestead in rural Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. His latest release, Bad Ax County comes out this month and people can pick up a copy for themselves at The Crystal Corner on February 18th or The Woodshed Ale House in Sauk City on February 26th.
MI: What inspired you to bring back the music style of the past? Why did this kind of Americana and old-school sound resonate with you?
LS: I think that my early stimulation to various styles of roots music hit me hard as a kid and I spent a lot of years searching for that sound. From a very young age, I was into music and searched and searched for that feeling inside that brings joy when you have the right tune. It was a natural progression for me because truth and integrity are so important to me. The music that always hit me the hardest was the stuff that had some kind of direct, organic and old sound as true as an old boot hitting a floorboard.
MI: It’s so unique, what was the moment where you went from just liking that music to wanting to make it your art?
LS: Throughout the 1990s I tried to learn how to play like that, learning songs and various styles of individual artists. I got to a point where I could cop a lot of styles and knew a lot of other artists’ songs. But something didn’t feel right. It wasn’t my story or my experiences. The whole idea of playing somebody else’s song feels empty to me so I started writing tunes. Songs about my experiences, travels, people that I have met and places where I’ve seen good and bad. Which slowly over 25 or so years has brought me to 2017…
MI: What song or yours do you want people to hear for their first time?
LS: I would recommend “Cabin In The Woods” on my latest release Bad Ax County. It’s a tune about my journey to finally finding a place I can call home. I had lived in a lot of different places over the years, on the road, in my van, in Chicago, in a gallery/studio space, in a house, and so forth. I was lost most of the time with no real need to stay in once place. I still live a life of transience but about two years ago my fiancé Stacey and I found a very special piece of land and off-grid cabin in the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin. I am spending much of my time now trying to build this place up as a homestead where we can live full-time one day. I am there every week working on things and enjoying the fresh air. We stay there most weekends unless I am touring. It took much of my life to get there and traveling through 48 states and 12 countries until I found the right time and place. It was probably more about she finding me and the rest followed, thankfully.
MI: What inspires you?
LS: I like to think about the early American musician who would have worked all day and then played music all night for enjoyment. They learned songs from family members or neighbors and pockets of styles were later discovered by musicologists and the music industry who then created categories and named styles etc… I like to celebrate the purity of this music before the songs were collected or were made into a product. I especially love the coming together of people of different backgrounds, ethnicity, social class, etc… for the pure love of music. I want to promote that idea that music does not have to be categorized, especially American Roots music. This music is for all of us regardless of your DNA. Anyone can enjoy it and anyone can play it. Music can heal us and bring us all together.
MI: You’ve toured all over North America and Europe. What’s been your favorite show so far? What happened there that made it so memorable?
LS: I’ve had a lot of good and bad experiences out on the road. The best of times can come from a place that you least expect. My favorite places have a lot of old world character and these days I seek venues like that out… These old places that have such history that they seem to attract amazing old souls who keep life within the walls, bring music, art and culture to great people who are there to enjoy it. When that wonderful exchange is taking place I am in 7th heaven.
MI: What are your shows at the Crystal and Woodshed going to be like?
LS: I play solo - I generally don’t jam. Mostly because I am scared to death to play with other people… I play original tunes on all acoustic instruments reminiscent of 1920s–30s and have finally brought my stage rig to a very honest and simple set up. I play banjo, resonator guitar, harmonica, bones, sing, holler and stomp my boot to the rhythm on a 3’ x 3’ portable front porch. I try to bring that front porch sound to the stage, or the bar room, farmers market, listening room, music venue… I like to tell stories in between songs and hope that my songs are playing a good story as well. I try to get a positive vibe and message out when I play. I hope to get people loose and moving. I like to get them to tap their foot and slap their knee, get up and move around a little, maybe even dance. I want them to feel good, to feel better and laugh a little, to feel together in that environment. Then hopefully head home with a good feeling inside and maybe come by and see me again sometime.