Christopher Porterfield of Field Report travels inner highways and outer byways

Christopher Porterfield on the road. milwaukeerecord.com

Perhaps his parents detected the glint of a wanderer in their infant’s eyes, then they named him. Christopher Porter is like a flawed version of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, especially in his marvelous song “Home (Leave the Lights On).” Or in “Summons” or “Enchantment,” or the Kerouac-esque “If I Knew.” In his humble way, Porterfield conveys an acute sense of place, even as locales shift. So he honors “the sacred,” as he did in his recent live YouTube performance, from Café Carpe, the quietly legendary roots music venue in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which prompted this essay. He paraphrased the great poet-naturalist Wendell Barry: “There are no places that are not sacred, only some that are desecrated.” This recalls the adage “The Holy Land is everywhere,” spoken by Native American wise man Black Elk, as the white man began his desecrating.

And much of Porterfield’s traveling runs parallel to wayward inner psycho-scapes, like the one depicted on the cover of the second Field Report album, Marigolden. There, two people stand separated by crevasses, lonely, yet heart-wrenchingly close, a stone’s throw away. Beside one person is a car — with head lights projecting towards the other person but too far overhead to illuminate the other person — seems an almost plaintive failure of technology.

Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy youtube. com

You get the feeling of risk in his wanderer’s sensibility. He conveys a distinctly American dilemma of isolation or alienation, from a desolate yet hungry heart. Yet the persona also belies the mythical Western loner cowboy narrative.

Porterfield’s slightly nerdy-hip horn-rim specs help make that abundantly clear. The UW-Eau Claire journalism major crafted his band’s name as a clever anagram of his last name, and the name Field Report posits himself as striving to be an honest yet poetic correspondent on what he finds “out there,” in still-untamed or sacred or desecrated, America, and in the craggy depths of his own heart and life.

Bob Dylan still does something comparable but less confessionally, as he did brilliantly probing modern American history in his epic Kennedy assassination song “Murder Most Foul,” last year. Porterfield’s missives, rich in autobiographical experience, seem closer to The New Journalism as Song, with the reporter playing a central role.

To back up a bit, I recently made the critical assertion that James McMurtry is probably America’s finest living singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan.” Of course, there are a goodly handful of others who would be that in that “best” conversation, including Steve Earle, whom I also reviewed in that blog. 1

But recently, Porterfield reminded me of his powers in his superb, often exquisite virtual concert. The front man and singer-songwriter for Field Report is a Milwaukeean (by way of Minnesota), part of the rich motherlode of creative songwriting born of the Upper Midwest, including (among many others) Dylan, John Prine, Greg Brown, Prince, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams, Bill Camplin, Josh Harty, Heidi Spencer, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), with whom Porterfield previously played with in the band DeYarmond Edison.

I first met Porterfield some years ago, when we were both employed by Marquette University. He was leading his previous band, Conrad Plymouth, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, a Milwaukee music venue that has long nurtured and celebrated singer-songwriters. “Fergus Falls,” destined as the opener for the first Field Report album, was already a highlight in his repertoire.

I’ve seen him open solo for Richard Thompson at The Pabst in Milwaukee, which immediately put him on substantial ground with that great artist. By then, Field Report was touring and making its mark. The band has since opened for Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Aimee Mann, and others. They signed to Verve/Forecast in time for their third album Summertime Songs. That label’s catalogue includes Ritchie Havens, Tim Hardin and Laura Nyro.

So I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation. Porterfield isn’t as outward-looking or social commenting as a McMurtry or an Earle. But on the premise that “all politics is personal,” you might accordingly contextualize this far more introspective artist. He lacks some of the musical range and variety of those artists (He’s not really a rocker, as those two often are, even if the last two albums albums delve into pop-rock textures and elevated production.).

Porterfield is essentially a lyrical brooder who can raise his emotional temperature as high as a rocker’s, as a lonesome howling wolf, though not in a bluegrass sense. So, even if McMurtry often expresses regret and doleful sentiment in a funky rock groove, it’s often couched in ironic attitude — he can walk that fine line superbly. But until Porterfield proves otherwise, him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.

Chris Porterfield, lead singer-songwriter of Field Report. Courtesy npr.org

Though Earle certainly has strong and tender singing moments, Porterfield is actually a more gifted vocalist than either he or McMurtry. His songwriting catalog can’t compare to those prolific veterans, but his voice is how Porterfield often catches you, as sharply and powerfully as an ace fly fisherman. But instead of comparing him too closely to others, for now, I’ll mainly strive to take him on his own terms — looking at the world from inside-out, and poetically, while often mining the quotidian, and being easy to connect with. His extraordinary singing emanates with stunningly affecting power, and unassuming poignancy. His points of emphasis often teeter along a gravelly vibrato that virtually bleeds vulnerability, and other times as startling upper-register bursts of emotion. These two stylistic aspects combine in the listener’s memory like a vivid, very human sonic silhouette.

Porterfield is a bruised, contemporary romantic, who directly admits he’s struggled with alcohol, who often sounds like a man dredging limpid thoughts from the depths of his innards, often with a starkness that feels naked, yet perfectly expressed, in the tender grain and surge of that voice. The emotion’s exposed moment often compels the outcries, but tempered by a man’s eloquent sense of self, uncertain as he may be of his situation.

Among his most affecting works is the aforementioned “Home (Leave the Lights On),” from Marigolden, which captures the longing of being “homeward-bound” as well has the famous Paul Simon song named for that phrase.

Among Porterfield’s most vivid, apparently recollected landscapes is “Fergus Falls,” the song resurrected from a 2010 Conrad Plymouth EP, for the self-titled debut Field Report album. Fergus Falls is a small town in Otter Tail County in Western Minnesota, his native state. Of the song’s inspiration, Porterfield told me: “My family used to have a cabin in northern Minnesota. We would drive through Fergus to get there. It sprung from my subconscious when that song appeared, mostly for the alliteration.”

The first Field Report album opens thusly: “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” It is the first of many struggles for equilibrium and grace in his lyric storytelling and brings to mind another gifted Minnesota writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a drinker who died at 44, and who, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun.” 2

Porterfield emerged from his early vertigo less fatefully, but comparably, with both a sharp-eyed self-insight and sense of inhabited landscape. Recollected landscapes, real and metaphorical, are a key to his sensibility. As The All-Music Guide has noted, “Some albums are about mood more than anything else, and on Marigolden Porterfield shows he’s a master of creating an ambience that’s cinematic in its strength and emotional impact.”  In fact, I can easily envision a Porterfield song adorning one of the new breed of Western movies being made by women directors (eg. Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland), which court America’s sprawling, rugged spaces but understand the vulnerable smallness of the wandering or wayward soul, alienated from community. 3 “Enchantment” from Marigolden opens on “Easter morning in New Mexico: the Son is risen on another day.” The spiritual wordplay replaces macho Old West gun play.

Porterfield’s is a gift he shares with the Texan McMurtry, as well as not many others. It has to do with how he imbues such perfectly wrought details resonating with  psychological utterance, so they breathe ultimately as song lyrics even though they’re impressive even on paper.

Like the aforementioned songs, “If I Knew,” the best-known title from the third album Summertime Songs, is also a road song, but more like a DUI-fueled misadventure, that probably left old St. Chris forgotten, way back in the dust: “You were bouncing off the guardrails shouting at the wind/ we were off our meds, drinking again.”

Album cover for Field Report’s “Brake Lights Red Tide.” Courtesy bandcamp.com

On the latest Field Report album, 2020’s Brake Lights Red Tide, Porterfield is still on the road and still searching for equilibrium but with an enhanced sonic vision, that seems to suspend him from deterioration or harm, and allows listeners to share such uneasy atmospheric heights.

The album cover photo (above) seems shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on a large bridge over a large body of water in Asia. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.

For me, this first seemed like a calculated detour and throughout Porterfield’s singing is more restrained than previously. But the effect ultimately beguiles in its open waywardness. The sonics elevate the thrust of the album on a woozy arc, until finally the penultimate track, “Whulge,” which is essentially a synthesizer instrumental, rippling in sonic waves, buoyant yet immersive. “Red tide” refers to a dense kind of sea algae. So, between the atmospheric synth and that metaphoric “tide,” Porterfield still faces mysteries he dares to dive into, especially with such watery themes as “a river’s love” and “Puget Sound.” Finally, the closing track, “Begin to Begin,” suggests a certain sense of being, a psychological condition he describes which seems like falling back into a pre-natal state, a refrain in sighing descent: “Begin to begin to begin to begin…” Only a session with his therapist, he sings, can pull him out.

But the whole notion of receding from a troubled lifetime back into pre-birth, the swallowing or drowning of full experience, is a profound abandonment, a healing re-immersion into imagined innocence. Perhaps it is the impulse toward literary critic Ihab Hassan’s famous concept of American “radical innocence”: “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” 4

Somehow, after life’s vagaries, cruelties and suffering, perhaps it’s a longing we all subconsciously share, to reset our course for unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach unto, perhaps, only death’s passage.

Earlier on Red Tide rebirthing hovers, as this sad saint sings, “My heart begs to be light but my mind gets dark. Can’t push us into love.”

Can’t push us into life, and its inevitable losses? Thus are the risks taken, by an artist as honest as he dares to be.

_________

  1. Or should I say, “younger than Willie Nelson”? The great critic Mikal Gilmore reminds us that, at 87, the godfather of “outlaw” Texas singer-songwriters, remains vital and in the game. https://legacyrecordings.medium.com/willie-nelson-first-rose-of-spring-1ae9f6eed41f Nelson’s long legacy (His 2018 album was aptly titled Last Man Standing), reinforces the research and statistics that show that marijuana is a far safer drug of pain or psychological management, or even indulgence, than booze (Among gifted singer-songwriters, see: Hank Williams, dead at 29; Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, dead last December at 38; and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, dead at 50; Tim Hardin dead at 39; Phil Ochs dead at 35, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, both dead at 27, primarily with alcohol abuse or hard drugs central to their demise. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s gun-shot suicide, at 27, was preceded by substantial drug abuse. The brilliant Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake overdosed, at 26, on a prescription anti-depressant drug, amitriptyline.)
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions, Modern Library, 139
  3. See Jordan Kisner’s essay, “The Western Rides Again,” The Atlantic, May 2021, 86 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/zhao-nomadland-women-western/618403/
  4. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton University Press 1961, 7

Steve Earle, and James McMurtry, mine the hearts of forsaken Trump voters

“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com

Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.

It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2

Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest 

Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs,  “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.

Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:

Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org

Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all 29 Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/ghosts-of-west-virginia-by-steve-earle-the-dukes-new-west/

***

Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly  solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.

He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3

“Complicated Game” album cover  

So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.

For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical conviction vote).

Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:

“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4

To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this voice, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?

The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so they inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.

Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5

James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com

This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.

From Culture Currents, May 2015: 

“(McMurtry) typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).

 

“But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates America’s economic times as well as anything.

Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.

“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through his veins by now. But McMurtry’s holding steady. 7

“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/Won’t you share your morning’s catch/with those whose ground you walk across/May their memory be not lost. 

“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And hell if he can’t celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

“It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes; he turns and spies New Mexico and Carolina — by way of Austin — from that metaphoric peak. He might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

“And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song ‘Cutter,’ about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day. 

“Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as ‘enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.’ ” 8

We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid footsteps to follow.

_____

1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.

Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.

3. Mike Seely, https://www.houstonpress.com/music/james-mcmurtrys-10-best-songs-6518030

4. Lorrie Moore, April 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office

5.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93

7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)

The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time

, and Paste Magazine’s “50 Greatest Alt-Country Albums,” (published in August 2016). https://www.pastemagazine.com/music/alt-country/the-50-best-alt-country-albums-of-all-time/

Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.

More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.

8. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/