Sisters doing it for themselves

The best things in our increasingly mass-produced lives are still grown regionally. The simple things, the uncorrupted things — the things that gild our days and seasons — grow in highly specific soils and climates.

New England is particularly known as a fertile breeding ground for folk music — and a crucial slice of a remarkable Massachusetts folk band descends on Asheville this week. Katryna and Nerissa Nields are the frontwomen/co-founders of The Nields, a five-piece outfit that’s wildly popular in their home region — and everywhere else the group’s constant touring schedule takes them.

Currently, the sisters are traveling as a duo, while other band members nurse solo projects. The band jokingly calls the two-woman tour “The Probe” (the sisters are testing different areas, sowing seeds of interest in the full band).

The Nields — especially the group’s main songwriters, Nerissa Nields and her husband, David — have been making a distinct impression since the mid-’90s. They hail from the same town as Dar Williams — Northampton, a place that loves its music and supports it wholeheartedly. The Nields have gathered a large, devoted fan base rivaling that of Williams — and most other folk groups touring today. (The group’s not entirely unheard of in Western North Carolina, either — they’ve played the Grey Eagle (where they’ll perform on Friday, Feb. 4) before, as well as Be Here Now. And David Dye — a man proven to know everyone and everything, where good music is concerned — has featured The Nields on his popular World Cafe program, a standard week-night feature on WNCW.

The liner notes of last year’s Cry Cry Cry collaboration (Razor and Tie) — a project featuring Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell — reveals that the CD was largely inspired by The Nields’ song, “I Know What Kind Of Love This Is.” The tune, penned by Nerissa, starkly and beautifully became one of ’99’s better listens.

Play — the band’s 1998 recording (and its first on Rounder Records’ rockish sub-label, Zoe) — combines excellent craftsmanship with an enticingly layered instrumental web. Delightfully, each song begs to be played loud — either because you want to rattle the windows, or so you won’t miss a murmur of an elegantly understated harmony.

The freedom unleashed in the sisters’ vocals is startling, the songwriting intelligent, and even-more-rocking tunes are driven by a vaguely literary force. There’s some shouting about Georgia O’Keeffe, and then, on softer efforts like “Snowman,” the sisters’ mischievous wordplay leaves you wide open to soak up the ensuing sadness.

It’s an insightful recording — sublime and intricate one moment, hard and piercing the next. That kind of dichotomy is a known quantity in this varied and versatile genre of music, of course — that soft, warm animal with sharp teeth we call folk.

But The Nields haven’t always aspired to be a folk band. Nerissa says the band went through a defining period while on Razor and Tie records (most notably, during the production of their acclaimed 1996 release Gotta Get Over Greta). To explain: At one time, The Nields were merely three — Nerissa, her sister Katryna and her husband, David (who took her name when they were married). “We started out in the folk scene in the early ’90s, then we made a conscious decision,” says Nerissa. “We decided we wanted to be a rock band. We had heard from a lot of people in the music industry [things like], ‘Stay out of the folk ghetto,’ and there was a big push from our label at the time to define us as Not Folk,” she recalls.

With a few additions, the group morphed into its current lineup: Dave, Katryna and Nerissa Nields; a bass player named Dave Chalfant; and yet another Dave (last name Hower) on drums.

At first, The Nields tried hard to shake the folkie label and re-emerge as a rock band. “The problem with that was, when you label yourself as a rock band, you are sometimes cutting yourself off from your audience that actually wants to hear you,” Nerissa explains. “That’s what we discovered.

“I think it was a matter of maturing and a matter of our hearts,” she continues. “We felt like, you know, let’s make the music that we make. We are a folk band, for better or for worse, [but] that’s not all we are.”

No, indeed. In fact, those who’ve never heard the band play live have, in a way, never heard the band play.

“One of the things that dogged us for years is that people would see our shows and say, ‘You are just fantastic, but your records just don’t do you justice,'” Nerissa reveals.

The band’s skirmishes with the live-vs.-recorded conundrum echoe those of the Beatles, a major influence. For years, the Beatles were a touring band. Then, they went into the studio and made Rubber Soul — and a host of other records that they couldn’t possibly re-enact on stage.

“We thought that, rather than make records that try and sound like we do live — which we can’t seem to do — we [would] make records that would stand on their own, not to be reproduced live,” she explains.

And that’ll probably be just fine. If it’s live shows that have made The Nields such a micro-burst phenomenon in the band’s own neck of the woods, a few more golden recordings like Play can only serve to merge the twin streams of the group’s exploding fan base.

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