photo by Dave Jackson
The music on Lou Shields’ new album, Cabin Sessions (currently streaming, out Thursday, April 18), has the soul and grit of a true American artist, full of stories of the authentic human experience. And after just a few minutes of speaking with Shields about his life and artistic journey, you quickly realize that Lou Shields the musician uses his music as an avenue to navigate and understand the experiences of Lou Shields the man.
While that may sound like standard fare of heartland rock icons or the post-punk grunge era, it takes a certain raw and real skill set to make it believable with the type of music that Shields plays: Folk music. Real. American. Folk music.
A native of Illinois, Shields spent his formative years in both urban and rural areas before settling in Chicago full-time for his early-adult years. While in the city, Shields lived in Pilcen, a famously artistic neighborhood where he was an active member of the art scene and regularly hosted gallery showings of his original work. Needless to say, art has always been a huge part of Shields’ life, and his personal history is threaded throughout his music.
Cabin Sessions opens with the hit-the-ground-running pace of “Here We Go,” which is all about packing your shit up and getting out of town (fast). Shields’ decision to make “Here We Go,” the album-opener pays off quickly as its energy does a great job of launching you on the metaphorical “folk” journey that he has carved out for you as his listener.
Another marquee moment of the album is the ballad “Round and Round,” which focuses on two home setters in the middle of a natural disaster who don’t have anyone to help them out and doubles as an homage to the wide flooding that devastated much of the state last year (the City of Madison is still in the throes of resolving the damage to this day). Shields says the entire experience really helped him understand how, in many ways, that’s how it used to be: people would rely on each other during the hard times, which kind of forced you to know a bit about your neighbor. And more and more, such a notion feels long-forgotten in today’s isolating age of apps and mobile devices.
Continuing the theme of nostalgia, another highlight of the album comes with “Old Friend,” where Shields tells a story we can all relate to: re-connecting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. The song depicts Shields’ journey of his early days as an artist, sleeping in his van while on the road, culminating in a storybook-ending as he achieves his dream of a grounded life at his cabin home with a beautiful family. The song is a semi-autobiographical moment (which Shields fully accredits to his wife, Stacey Roou) and is an undeniable highlight of Cabin Sessions as a whole.
Elements of a distant America, or “the old country,” as Shield calls it, are present throughout the album, which complements the essence of folk music well. Shields’ noted influences span folk, Americana, blues and jazz and include iconic figures from folk-legend Woodie Guthrie to Charlie Patton (the “Father of Delta Blues”) and the likes of Bob Dylan. When listening to his music, those influences certainly make sense and there is a raw (and frankly, refreshing) sound to the entire experience that takes you back to the John-Steinbeck America of old with hard-working people persevering through dust and struggle.
Shields’ captured this turn-of-the-century aura even in how he literally produced the album: 100 percent live at his cabin, which is entirely ran on solar power. For the recording, Shields worked with revered sound engineer Tom Herbers. Herbers has produced live sound for the legendary label Sub-Pop (for the uninitiated, they are largely credited with launching the grunge movement and were the first to sign a trio from Seattle named Nirvana, among countless other legendary acts) and worked with the likes of The Jayhawks and, more recently, the Stevens Point-based sensation Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.
To top it off, the album was fully recorded on reel-to-reel tape, with no overdubs (Shields also partnered with the Madison manufacturer, Sooper Dooper, for the vinyl release). That level of dedication is almost unheard of these days and result creates an immersive sound, like you were invited to some exclusive folk-rock concert and Shields is playing right there in your living room.
While folk music may not have some of the sheer volume and audible weight of large rock bands or bluegrass outfits, there’s a stripped-down sound and unflinching artistry that is present in its structure, perhaps more than any other music genre out there. And if you think about it, there has to be. A folk musician has to wear his talent (and heart) on his sleeve. There’s simply no hiding behind some of the high-tech tools and tech available to musicians today.
So, for real American folk music to hit its mark, the musician has to be pretty darn good.
And with Cabin Sessions, Lou Shields proves that’s exactly what he is.
Catch Lou live on Thursday, April 18, at one of Madison’s newest music venues, The Winnebago: 2262 Winnebago St.
Doors: 7 p.m.; Music: 8 p.m.
Visit www.thewinnebago.com for more info.
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CD: Cabin Sessions Record Label: Self Released