All too often musicians performing American roots music barely scratch the surface, relying on shallow affectations rather than digging deeply into the soil that nurtured blues and spirituals, sacred chants and field hollers, work songs and cautionary ballads. And then there’s Martha Redbone, the singer and songwriter who spent her childhood in Kentucky’s Harlan County before moving to hardscrabble Brooklyn in her teenage years. Drawing on her mother’s Native American heritage (Cherokee/Choctaw) and her father’s African-American culture, she’s become one of the most powerful voices in American music with a striking repertoire that marries ecstatic poetry to soul-girded melodies.
She launched the Roots Project with her creative partner, music director and husband, pianist/keyboardist Aaron Whitby, as a vehicle to dismantle tired clichés about the cultural homogeneity of Appalachia, “all that stuff about coal mining, rednecks and hillbillies,” says Redbone, who returns to Freight & Salvage on Wednesday for her first Bay Area gig in five years.
“What people don’t know is that it’s a huge melting pot of many different cultures and nationalities,” she says. “All the clichés are a small part of what Appalachia is about. What I wanted to do with the Roots Project is tell a bigger truth, celebrating the concept of mountain music by including the sounds of all the folks who came to mountains, the Irish and Scottish, the freed slaves who brought gospel and the banjo, the Native Americans already in the region.”
In many ways the Roots Project builds on a sound that Redbone and Whitby introduced on her powerhouse 2001 debut album Home of the Brave (Blackfeet Records). They’d spent years in London writing and producing stripped down soul for savvy UK audiences, and the album established her as both the most exciting new voice in Native American music and a fiercely intelligence soul singer with a glorious sound.
Her subsequent albums more than lived up to the promise of her debut, but nothing really prepared the way for 2012’s The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake (Black Feet), which features the mystically charge verse of the Romantic poet and artist set to an array of American roots idioms. Produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen and David Hoffner, a veteran musician, composer and producer, the album is an enthralling soul landmark.
While Redbone co-wrote the songs, she credits Whitby with the ingenious notion to combine William Blake with rhythm and blues. “We have the Blake books here in our library and he said, ‘Let’s look through these. We could probably do things with them,’” she says. “They just sparked all these melodies. It was very organic and quick, just amazing how fast and easy it was. It felt like they had always been meant for these melodies.”
They selected some four-dozen poems and ended up releasing 12 on The Garden of Love, often finding echoes of Appalachia in his imagery. “He talked a lot about rolling hills,” she says, “a really similar countryside.”
One reason the Roots Project is such a powerful vehicle for the Blake songs is that the band draws on a stellar roster of New York players steeped in jazz and blues. The Freight band includes the brilliant guitarist Marvin Sewell, who’s recorded with elemental singers Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright, and bassist Fred Cash, a groovemeister who can be found with the likes of Toshi Reagon, Marika Hughes and India.Arie. Rounding out the quintet is violinist Charles Burnham, a prolific improviser and studio musician best known in jazz circles for his galvanizing work with guitarist James Blood Ulmer and Cassandra Wilson.
“Martha is a joy to work with,” says Burnham, who recently released an album with Berkeley-reared tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness Quartet (Reva Records). “She brings it every night, full blast.”
Anyone interested in delving more deeply into Redbone’s fascinating family saga can catch her production Bone Hill at Sonoma’s Green Music Center on Thursday, Jan. 24. She describes the show as “a concert with storytelling in between.” She’s also working on a musical that’s being incubated to Joe’s Pub that expands on Bone Hill, taking the story into the present. “When you do a story about Native Americans we’re always depicted in the past,” she says. “This version we really wanted to put it in the present time.”
No matter what the setting, Redbone finds a way to turn performances into a communal celebration. “At the root, this music is congregational,” she says. “We really appreciate a style of call and response. We don’t have the luxury of being on Top 40 radio where they play your song seven times a day. We do story telling. You have to paint a picture of who you are. We welcome them into the music, and try to recreate church wherever we go.”