It was three Folks Festivals ago when I first saw the Nields. I had gone to Lyons that year to see Cheryl Wheeler and Michelle Shocked, Nancy Griffith and Peter Himmelman. I had never heard of the Nields, two sisters -- Nerissa and Katryna, and their two husbands and a drummer, all three of whom are named Dave, who play not quite folk and not quite rock, and not quite anything we normally call alternative. It was an accident that I was even near the stage when they came on.
Gotta Get Over Gretta was their new album then, and I think they opened with "Best Black Dress." It took me about one whole verse to fall in love with them. Katryna's long-limbed boundless energy, Nerissa's "I dare you" guitar and occasional belt of a solo, the three Daves on guitar, bass and drums, their faces moving between amusement and appreciation as they watched the two women pass and dribble and then slam dunk the crowd.
I knew right away that Nerissa was the writer. She had that stretched look around her eyes. And Katryna followed the emotional roller coaster of her sister's pen as if they were, well, sisters. Their voices blended to make something that sounded like more than two voices, more than just harmony -- a third thing that had a life of its own and called to me from some sweeter, more playful galaxy.
They sang a song called "Georgia O" that paid homage to the painter (Girl, you've got some nerve, taking everything that you deserve). They sang a song called "Snowman" after Wallace Stevens (It's alright, it's okay, if I freeze, I can't decay). They sang a song called "Einstein's Daughter," from the daughter's point of view (Everything is relative, that's my little joke). Each song was smart, funny, fresh, naked, joyful, a little frightening and dead-on true. By the time they sang "Gotta Get Over Gretta," about how even heterosexual girls never really get over their ex-best friends, they had become my current favorite band.
I went home and wrote them a fan letter. (It was only when I started publishing books and started receiving fan letters myself that I realized that the writing of fan letters is acceptable and sometimes even appreciated.) The Nields were in Birmingham, Ala., when they got my letter. Their van (Moby Juan Van Kenobi) was broken down for the hundredth time that summer and they were contemplating disbanding, once and for all. It's better if they tell the next part of the story, but apparently my letter cheered them up. Enough to get the van fixed one more time, and enough for David (Nerissa's husband) to write me back and tell me that they had read my first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, and had written a song ("The Art of the Gun") that was heavily influenced by one of my stories.
A rich, mutually appreciative correspondence ensued and culminated, for the first time at least, in a show we put on together at New York's famous folk venue, The Bottom Line, to celebrate my new collection of short stories, Waltzing the Cat, and their new album, Play. I was their opening act. I read one of my stories, introduced the Nields, and then came out and played tambourine during the encore. It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most fun night I've ever gotten paid for, and quite possibly the most fun night of my whole life. The old clich may be true that all writers wish they were rock stars and all rock stars wish they were writers, but there aren't many of my writer friends who can say they sold out two shows at The Bottom Line.
It's been two years since that show and the Nields are coming back to Folks Fest with another new CD, If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now. There's no denying the folk roots here. Woody Guthrie's gentleness rubbed up against Odetta's soul, and the Beatles, bubbling up through the mixes like one of those tenacious Mexican genes for blue eyes. But if you listen for it you can hear everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Richard Thompson on this record, everyone from Janis to Alanis to Simon and Garfunkel with a little Chieftains thrown in. Add to that mix Nerissa's true and razor-edged lyrics that turn always unexpectedly toward hope and light, and Katryna's voice, a thing like light itself as she rubs her consonants together like they might at any second burst into flames, and you'll hear why the Nields are so perfectly irresistible.
And when you listen to the record's real tour de force, "One Hundred Names," a ballad so pure and honest and timeless you check the liner notes twice because you are sure it must have been written by one of those world-class singer songwriters decades before you were born, and then you see that it was written by Nerissa, a Nerissa who -- just for a moment -- let the smirk that always makes us listen so closely fall out of the corner of her mouth, you begin to understand that trying to categorize the Nields makes even less sense than to historicize them. A better response, and more Nieldsian, would be to sing along, dance around and be grateful.
Which is what they are planning to do this year at Folks Fest. I called Nerissa on her cell phone just before I sat down to write this article. They were blasting across Ohio in their new and far more healthy van, Nessy the Loch Ness Vanster, on their way to a street concert in Chicago.
They said they are psyched to come back to Folks Fest, and they told me the story of the first time they came, how they arrived in their "uptight East Coast state" and soon discovered what an easy and relaxed thing a festival was in Colorado. "There were a whole line of Tibetan monks filling the front row and grinning during our set," Nerissa said, "and there I was, back in my East Coast mind, thinking 'Oh God, we aren't holy enough, they're judging us,' but like everybody else at the festival, they weren't."
I asked her what's the best thing a song can do in the world and she says, "I have this stubborn little teenage voice inside me -- you know, the one that used to fight with my mother -- that says a song doesn't need to do anything at all. ... It can be happy or pissed off, it's an aesthetic statement, this little thing that just is. But I keep running into people who are showing me that our songs have power, how a song helped them through a tough time or made them understand something -- and I have to admit that makes me feel good."
I suggest that it may be the stubborn voice that allows for the truth telling, and the truth telling that allows people to connect.
There's a hum on the cell phone while she thinks this over. Finally, she just says, "Thank you for that."
"So I'm writing this article," I say, "and I don't know what to call you."
"We'd be pop if we were popular," David shouts from the driver's seat. It's an old joke, I can tell, and I hear all five band members laughing as the reception starts to fade.
"I'll see you in Lyons," I yell, unsure if they've heard me.
What's way more important is that we get to hear them.