“Music is our drug of choice, I guess you could say,” said Jill Hamlin, one half, the other being Reed Fields, of the duo A Little Bit More.
As vices go, there are less expensive ones than music, but to Hamlin and Reed, it’s the one that exists as a lifelong pursuit, as necessary as oxygen.
“It’s kind of just like breathing. If we didn’t have music, I don’t think we’d be able to survive,” said Hamlin.
By day, both Hamlin and Fields work with youth. Hamlin, who has a Master’s in Social Anthropology Ethnomusicality from Queen’s Unversity Belfast in Northern Ireland, is a program director for Sunrise Children’s Services, while Fields applies his Master’s in Teaching at Bath County High School. By night, the pair set out to spin heartrending ballads and straight barroom rockers in joints stretching from the iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville to New England.
What comes through on “Silhouettes,” their debut album, is a back-to-basics approach. The duo seeks to showcase in their influences, ranging from rock to gospel, but they aren’t necessarily interested in deconstructing the country genre in the same vein as fellow eastern Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. They brand their music as Americana, but it often exists more as a strain of purer country, the kind not heard ever since a more modern, pop sound has taken root in the mainstream. Shades of Emmylou Harris shine through, and the compressed finger-picked acoustic on the opening of “I Don’t Lie to You” might be at home on any of Steve Earle’s seminal albums. Both are cited influences on A Little Bit More’s work, but nothing feels forced.
In fact, authenticity is part of what makes A Little Bit More so familiar and lived-in. When there’s a bit of Eastern Kentucky accent shining through in the lyrics, it’s genuine expression rather than affectation. Hamlin and Fields sing how they talk – they aren’t exaggerating it for effect, and they aren’t toning it down to satisfy contrived mainstream appeal (for more on the complications surrounding an Eastern Kentucky accent, head here: http://www.under-main.com/proper-english-yall/). That sense of place anchors the music, and the lyrics reflect their Owingsville, Kentucky, setting, plumbing both the dark and light sides for depth.
“Music is about celebrating,” said Hamlin. “It’s about bringing to light good things and bad things.”
Both the good and the bad abound in the text of A Little Bit More’s music. Hamlin’s plaintive vocals on “Where I Am” are a quiet reflection on the ravages of addiction, speaking to her belief that this scourge has become something almost as devastating as cancer in its expanding reach.
“Everyone knows someone who has been touched by it,” said Hamlin, a condition that seems to her to have only reached this prominence in recent years. “Where is the hope?”
Fields teases an upcoming tune, “Crooked Town,” which looks at small-town corruption that he hints may be less than fiction.
Counteracting the somber notes of these songs are “Beer Bottle” and “Get Up Crowd,” which bring the duo back to a more celebratory mode that makes you want to scoot a boot across the dance floor, complete with just the right amount of twangy guitar.
To record their debut, the duo brought their full band contingent to studio Station West Nashville to work with engineer Kyle Manner (Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson). The experience was surreal for the pair.
“He (Kyle) treated us like we were somebody,” said Hamlin. “We’re used to being a ‘garage band.’”
After a month of preparation and four solid 11- and 12-hour days of recording, the result was “Silhouettes,” a 13-track album of original music, released in March of 2017. That hard work returned an unexpected benefit in the form of a win for “Album of the Year” at the Lexington Music Awards in early 2018. The duo hopes this award will be a boon locally, where they have been building a steady following, which sometimes manifests itself in interesting ways.
“We were playing a writer’s night at Bobby’s Idle Hour [in Nashville] – which is the last actual writer’s night place that they have on Music Row,” said Fields. The place was crowded when Hamlin and Fields made their way in, asking some seated patrons if it would be okay to sit at their table. Fields sat down and began messing with his guitar to get ready to play.
“They tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You don’t recognize us?’,” said Fields. “Four of our fans from Lexington had driven all the way there to watch us play six songs.”
“At 10:45 at night!” interjected Hamlin.
“On a weeknight!” Fields laughed. “So we love the music scene in Lexington.”
A Little Bit More’s fandom has taken on an even more unusual form: a line dance captured in a series of YouTube videos, with one garnering almost 40,000 views. Fields found this out almost by accident when he started searching for the title of his songs and saw a result that seemed to be a match.
“I clicked on it, and there’s these people in China dancing to it,” said Fields.
An Irish choreographer created the dance to the strains of “Save Me Tonight,” and she has been teaching it (and filming it) with groups around the world. That level of audience buy-in spurs Fields and Hamlin onward.
“The final defining moment is when you play a song and you see people reacting,” said Fields, recounting an early moment in the duo’s tenure when an original song moved some audience members to tears.
“That, to me, is the ultimate for music – you can create something that people could relate to that strongly.”
That moment for Hamlin came during a set of covers when audience members started requesting their original tunes.
“It was a humbling experience,” she said.
For A Little Bit More, those experiences are happening more as the hard work begins to pay off. They continue to hone their craft, working their way through the ropes in famous songwriter locales in Nashville, while somewhere on the other side of the world, a new group of line dancers learns the steps to a song from a humble duo from Owingsville, Kentucky.