When Appalachian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Martha Spencer tentatively describes her sound as “Mountain country Americana” that’s really only telling half the story. As much as it’s a perfectly fitting description of the music she makes, it only hints at the magic that she’s capable of infusing these timeless songs and traditions with.
Growing up in the famous Whitetop Mountain Band, Spencer was raised on and in mountain music. Channeling the old sounds at the same time as somehow managing to breathe new life into them, half of the songs on her new album, Wonderland are fresh compositions, showcasing a style that fits just as neatly alongside classic icons like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as it does her contemporaries like Lillie Mae and Sierra Ferrell.
Ahead of her new album in September, Martha Spencer shares her new video for ‘Young Rover’ exclusively with Holler below.
Women passed Appalachian music down from generation to generation, many never getting any outside credit for their work, and Spencer herself comes from a long line of musical matriarchs. When writing or choosing material for the album, Spencer wanted to emphasize and push forward songs that featured powerful women, countering that old English ballad trope of women being driven to an early grave because of their men.
"This is a bit of a heartbreak song about someone not being who you thought they were and broken promises of love”, Martha Spencer explained to us about her new single. “It ended up coming out of me in a ballad sort of way, and I know some of the old ballads ended with the digging of a grave from heartache, but I wanted to rewrite that ending a bit with “Never let the real lose out to the fake / For a true love it will give / A false one it will take / Never let a man drive you to your grave.”
It’s a softly-picked, harmony-soaked mountain ballad that brings to mind Laura Cantrell or Gillian Welch, topped off with a sprinkle of longing and a big delicious dollop of yearning.
“I wrote and recorded it on the old Gibson guitar I learned to play on and that my dad learned on too when he was a kid; my mom gave it to me after he passed, and I’ve written several songs on it since. Jamie Collins sang harmony on the song with me, and Michelle Kowalski filmed the video in Lascassas, TN with my friend, Brent Higdon, highlighting the idea of mirage versus the real in love and life."
The pandemic’s been hard on everyone, but for Martha Spencer it was difficult to see the small community that she grew up in hit hard by the isolation. Now that music is starting to come back into the town, now that square dances and stringband jams are starting up again, she’s turned her gaze back to the larger world, hoping to get back to the international travel she enjoys. She’s already got tours planned for Canada, Australia, and Germany in the Fall.
We sat down with her to talk about her influences, growing up in Whitetop mountain and what the rest of the year has in store for her.
Where are you from and how did that influence you?
I grew up on Whitetop Mountain, Virginia in a family of fiddlers, singers, dancers and instrument makers. The area has a rich tradition of mountain music and dance, so I grew up going to dance halls, festivals and venues like the Carter Fold. All that definitely influenced me getting into music; it’s a big part of life there.
What did you grow up listening to?
I listened to my family and folks in the area a lot like the Carter Family, Doc Watson and Stanley Brothers, and also a lot of classic country like Dolly and George Jones. I also enjoyed hearing a lot of different styles of world folk music at festivals we travelled to.
You play a lot of instruments. What’s the weirdest thing you can play?
Well hmm, I’ve tried to play a glove before but not that great on it.
Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
I’ve been thankful to get to travel to some cool places through the years. I’ve been to Australia maybe eight or nine times and love it there, I always wanted to go there since I was a kid, but unexpected I actually got to - since it’s such a long ways from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
You’ve also been recognised for Appalachian dancing and you lead dance workshops, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into that?
My folks took me to dances they played since I was a baby, and there are a lot of great dancers I grew up around just watching and trying to flatfoot/buck dance since I was a toddler. Through the years I got to adding my own style of steps too, and I love to dance. I also enjoying teaching dance as well and did that at festivals, camps and JAM programs.
What inspires you?
I love being in nature, animals, inspiring people and other music. I enjoy traveling, creating art/projects, songwriting and doing interviews with folks and love collaborating with other strong women. I play in several different bands and find that inspiring too.
What’s your favourite song of yours?
'Rags Over Riches' (maybe on this album)
And what’s your favourite songs of someone else’s?
It’d be hard to pick one - there’s so many songs and artists I love - but I’ve been listening to and singing Ola Belle Reed’s ‘Tear Down the Fences’ a lot of late. Lillie Mae’s ‘Blue Heart', Archer’s ‘Kangaroo’, the Legendary Ingramettes’ ‘I’ve Endured’, Tyler Hughes and Sam Gleaves’ ‘Mama Paint Me a Picture’ and Dolly’s ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Boy’ are some favourites as well, that I listened to on the road yesterday.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
To a time when my dad and cousins Dean and Audrey were still alive. I miss them a lot.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
Ola Belle Reed that I mentioned above was a cousin of mine but never got to meet her, so that would be cool. Mother Maybelle Carter, Elizabeth Cotten, Hazel Dickens are a few artists and I’d love to meet Dolly Parton.
What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Get in the habit of cleaning out your car more often. It’s like a pig pen in there today.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be touring a lot in the fall in Canada, Australia, and Germany. I look forward to this album coming out and another with The Blue Ridge Girls too that I play with. And I hope to keep on playing, recording, working on projects, teaching music and traveling as long as I can.
The album Wonderland is released on September 2nd