If you met Lou Shields on the street, you might think that he just walked off the set of The Grapes of Wrath, until you saw his shoes. Decked out in an untucked buttoned-down shirt over a t-shirt, with his signature porkpie hat, and cuffed jeans, Shields looks the part of a character from the 1930s, except for his Vans on his feet. Shields, who plays Delta Blues to audiences around the world, isn’t a product of the depression nor Louisiana. He grew up in the Chicago area and along with his music, is an accomplished artist and skateboarder (hence the Vans). At 43, his beard has some salt and pepper and his skateboarding is a little harder on this body, but his musical and artistic output hassn’t slowed. Currently Shields has several pieces of his artwork at the Paul Henry’s Art Gallery in Hammond, Indiana and continues to play dates in the midwest with a Chicago show later this month. In the meantime, Shields also teaches Art History and Appreciation at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, where he’s shaped young mind for the last 15 years.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently met with Shields at Perkolator coffee in Jefferson Park in Chicago’s Northwest Side where he talked about his passions, European versus American music fans and his movement away from the thing that arguably made him most distinctive — attaching bottle caps, smashed soda cans and small drum cymbals to skateboard decks that he would stomp on during a show for percussion while singing, playing his guitar and harmonica, often at the same time.
CA) Before you return to Chicago August 27, You have a lot of dates coming up in Wisconsin.
SHIELDS) Yeah, my fiancé is from there and I’ve been trying to move my business up there. I played Chicago for five or six years and needed a hiatus. I think I was a little over-exposed to my friends and people who knew my music.
CA) You’re an artist, a teacher, a musician and a skateboarder. What do you consider yourself primarily?
SHIELDS) They are all big passions of mine and I really want to be able to do all of them equally. Sometimes I get too focused on one thing for awhile. I’ve been focused heavily on the music for the last few years but I always try to keep doing my art. The skateboarding is more of my release to get away from the other things, the teaching and the art and the music.
CA) Is it hard to keep up with the skateboarding now that you’re in your forties?
SHIELDS) I’ve noticed in within the last year that I have to slow down. This was the first winter that I hadn’t skated almost every day. I bought a cabin in southwest Wisconsin in December so since then I’ve been working on that.
CA) Is that where you’re living now?
SHIELDS) I’m there on the weekends and in the summer I’m pretty much there working everyday unless I have a gig somewhere.
CA) I read that you’re building some type of guest house as well?
SHIELDS) Yeah, I’ve got this shack that I worked into the deal. It’s up on a hill and unfinished but I want to move it down the hill into a pine forest. I’ll jack it up and put it on blocks and turn it into a little studio and a place for friends to come and stay.
CA) It sounded like you are trying to create a commune type of thing.
SHIELDS) Yeah, I’d like to do something cool. Or let musicians who are on the road stay there for a few days. It’s an hour and a half from Madison. It’s in the Driftless region of Wisconsin which is really cool. It’s a little known part of Wisconsin that is getting some attention now. It’s a weird piece of geography that is basically un-glaciated land. So while most of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and part of Minnesota got smashed down by glaciers, the theory is that this area totally un-smashed and pretty hilly. It’s almost like you’re in eastern Tennessee.
CA) How did you stumble upon it?
SHIELDS) When I was a kid, I used to go up there all the time because I had an aunt who lived there. I’d go stay for a week and play on the river and it was a lot of weird early stuff that shaped me for later. I had totally forgot about it although I searched for an area like it for years when I was traveling and skateboarding in places like Montana. Then suddenly I met this girl who had a Driftless tattoo and I asked her what it meant. She started explaining it and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s where my aunt lived and it’s the place that made me who I am in a lot of ways.’
CA) You grew up in the South Suburbs and lived most of your life in and around Chicago, but yet you have this Delta Blues thing. If someone didn’t know you, they may think you were from Mississippi.
SHIELDS) Yeah. People always ask where I’m from and are surprised when I say from Chicago.
CA) It’s interesting because you look a bit like one of the guys from the 1930s who used to ride the rails, but then you’re wearing Vans on your feet. It’s a cool mix.
SHIELDS) Yeah, a strange anomaly. [Laughter].
CA) On the way here, “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion came on the radio and it made me think that even though you’re focused on Delta Blues, you have that punk thing going. Maybe it’s the DIY thing with the way you are your own band. What are the pros and cons about playing by yourself?
SHIELDS) For one thing, it’s a lot easier with recording. It’s a lot easier for organizing. You don’t have to set up practice session with people, you just do it. Booking gigs is easier too but then when you start trying to do more it’s harder. A lot of venues either have this moniker of one-man-band or singer-songwriter, and I’m really neither. I kind of play a lot of instruments at the same time. A one man band is usually a guy behind a drum set. A singer songwriter is usually into other genres that I don’t do either. So a lot of venues want a band to pay you the full amount. They kind of pay you as much as the bass player. Sometimes if they are friendly to it they get it. Another advantage is that I get to play venues that a band can’t because they are too big for a coffee shop and things like that. The music I play and the musicians that I’m tapped into, they weren’t playing in front of lots of people with big amps. They were playing in the back rooms of grocery stores and the front porches of a saloon. In today’s world, it’s kinda hard to figure out but I’m starting to find the right types of venues. For a long time in Chicago, there were venues that featured everyone from punk bands to rock bands to reggae and then there’s me. Sometimes I’d be on a big stage or in a really loud environment that doesn’t really do well for my music in terms of getting their attention. So for a long time I got into the skateboards [for percussion] and other things to get their attention. It worked for awhile but it was beginning to feel like a novelty so I’ve slowly been taking away some of that stuff and work more on my guitar and my voice.
CA) Now the stuff with the skateboard decks for the percussion, is that more practical or is it more of a gimmick?
SHIELDS) I think in the beginning I really felt good about it because it was new to me and something I thought of and I had never seen it done before. I was trying to keep up with the punk bands that a lot of times I would open up for and I needed sound, so that helped and it gave people something to look at. It was really cool.
CA) It sort of blended your passions as well.
SHIELDS) Yeah, but for pure sound I recently made the decisions to retire it for now. I want people to come for me more than for my skateboards.
CA) When did you first get into the Delta Blues?
SHIELDS) I had a lot of epiphany moments. I had a lot of strange things happen when I was a kid that I must have paid attention to. Kind of like that Driftless thing that came back later when I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s what I was longing for and searching for and it’s right there.’ I think television was a big part. My father watched The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie and shows like that and their soundtracks were all roots influenced music, so I heard that growing up and that’s what I focused on. I like to think of the music before the 1920s when they started recording music and creating genres. It was just music, American music that came from many places in the world and happened here. It was just stuff that people played at night. That’s what’s my art is about also.
CA) It seems like a lot of folk songs of the past are coming around again. Whether because a guy like Tom Morello or maybe just because of the topics, they seem very relevant.
SHIELDS) It’s so cool because it’s the same as the punk rock stuff. The pure punk stuff is DIY, where bands do it yourself and make it happen. A lot of people thought you had to have a mohawk and boots, but it’s actually the attitude.
CA) You were recently touring in Europe. What’s the reception to your music like there as opposed to here?
SHIELDS) You know what I noticed, they seem to know what I’m doing more so than the general public here. The general public here will say things like ‘You sound like Andy Griffin’ or something like that. They relate more to television like I mentioned. The people in Europe celebrate the music and research it and are very excited about the history. More so than our people are, although we have a large group of folks that are dedicated. But here there is this weird authenticity thing where some people are like, ‘We’re from this camp and we don’t like the way you play because you finger pick with your thumb instead of your forefinger’ and they don’t want to listen because of this one little thing. Over there, when they hear an American playing American music in Europe it brings tears to their eyes because it’s what they dream about.
CA) So they may more likely know that you’re influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson?
SHIELDS) They will say, ‘I like that Blind Lemon riff.’ They pick it out real quick. I had a guy in Italy who was drunk off his ass and could barely speak English, but he started naming off all my heroes. It’s awesome when that happens.
CA) You had an art gallery in Pilsen. How long was that open?
SHIELDS) About two years, at 18th and Halsted Streets.
CA) Why did you shut it down?
SHIELDS) Rent kept going up and our monthly party was costing a ton. I wasn’t the best business person. I couldn’t make the sales to keep up. We’d sell maybe one or two pieces at the show. I was bringing in a lot of my friends from grad school and letting them display their work also, which was awesome. I was giving them opportunities to show their work and people were excited, but I was trying to get them to keep their prices at a certain level so that that my friends who were coming to the shows could afford to buy them. It was getting to the point where I wasn’t able to make my work. My music was coming back and I didn’t have the time that was required.
CA) The business angle is something a lot of artists struggle with. You have to pay the bills but you also want to keep your integrity.
SHIELDS) Right, that’s the most important thing for me. I don’t want to pander. People always say, ‘Maybe you should do some covers or write some Christmas songs’ but I can’t. That’s not why I started doing this.
CA) Any pressure to play with a band?
SHIELDS) People suggest it sometimes but I prefer playing alone. I get a little freaked out when I have to play with people. I had stage fright all through the 1990s.
CA) How did you overcome it?
SHIELDS) I slowly worked at it. I think teaching helped, being in front of people. I still have bad social anxiety anyway. I’m good with playing music because I’m comfortable with my stuff but I have to have everything in a certain place when I play. Then it feels like I’m in my living room. But if someone wants to jam with me I get freaked out.
CA) Does it matter as far as to the size the venue?
SHIELDS) The bigger the venue the more isolated you are from the people. The smaller venues are scary because you’re on top of the people, but I prefer it because you can feel their energy. If you’re on a huge stage it doesn’t matter because you can’t see the fans anyway. In the little venue, you hear everything they are saying. If they like it you know it and if they don’t well, it’s a long night.
CA) Is there a process to your songwriting?
SHIELDS) I realized a couple things that are really key for me with my music. I have to travel, I have to see new things and breath that air. I have to gather that information and hear it in my heart and my mind so I can sit down and make it happen. I don’t sit down and say ‘I have to write a song.’ I let it build up and then I get through it.
CA) Is the process similar with your artwork?
SHIELDS) Yeah, I think so. I just have to gather the info and then it comes out.
Lou Shields will perform 7:30 p.m. August 27 at the Honky Tonk BBQ in Chicago.