SPIRITUAL HOMECOMING: Martha Redbone Roots Project heads to UNCW with Lakota John

Jan 16 • ARTSY SMARTSY, COVER STORY, FEATURE MAIN, Features, Interviews and Such, MusicNo Comments on SPIRITUAL HOMECOMING: Martha Redbone Roots Project heads to UNCW with Lakota John

“We like to take you to church,” singer-songwriter Martha Redbone describes of her shows. “Like a revival service, we send you back home all warm and fuzzy. We have a lot of fun. It’s congregational music and that’s the basis of mountain and folk music; it’s for the people and community, and that audience is our community for the evening.”

SPIRIT, STORY, SONG: Martha Redbone will connect song, culture and stories in her Roots Project. Photo by Fabrice Trombert

SPIRIT, STORY, SONG: Martha Redbone will connect song, culture and stories in her Roots Project. Photo by Fabrice Trombert

In addition to being “a collision of cultures,” Redbone shows are often described as energetically spiritual. It’s not a concert to passively or idly watch. It’s often about connecting, engaging with and feeling the music and stories behind it. The same can be said of her latest showcase, Martha Redbone Roots Project, which she’ll bring to UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium on January 18.

Redbone herself is biracial and comes from a bicultural family—part Cherokee, Choctaw, European, and African-American descent. As well, her contemporary music has garnered recognition from the Native-American Music Awards since releasing her first album, “Home of the Brave,” in 2001. As a result of her family and musical upbringing, now she describes her Roots Project as a “gumbo” of American-roots music.

“We’ve been able to celebrate mountain music with gospel music and blues,” she describes, “and using the poetry of William Blake, which is really great fun because the language is just so beautiful.”

Not only paying tribute to Americana, mountain and folk music, Redbone wishes to celebrate the people and cultures it all comes from. From Scottish and Irish, to Portuguese and African, to Native American, for hundreds of years the blended sounds and influences created Appalachian music.

Threading William Blake’s poetry into song came about as happenstance.Her husband and long-term collaborator, pianist Aaron Whitby, rediscovered a book of Blake’s poems at home. “A Poison Tree,” specifically, stood out, and Whitby thought it fit well with what they were already working on.

“So we read through a bunch of the poems,” Redbone tells. “We were inspired by the language and imagery. William Blake is a poet you either love or hate. . . . Once you really start reading it, it’s really just wonderful. He was ahead of his time. And we became fascinated by these 200-plus-year-old poems about topics that we’re still struggling with today.

“There’s a poem called ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard,’” she continues. “That’s where William Blake writes the call, or an announcement for the healing of the earth. That particularly spoke to us because of climate change and all of the extremes of weather we’ve been having—the fires on the West Coast and hurricanes in the East Coast, flooding and things like that. And we thought about that poem, calling for the healing of the earth, a renewal and rebirth . . . human beings having compassion for each other and the earth.”

Now more than ever—in times of social media, internet and information available at a swipe or click of a button—we are instantly connected with global issues (wars, famine, natural and man-made disasters) at a speed once unheard of. While we as a global community may not be able to physically help, Redbone says we can certainly help by spreading the word.

“It seems like the world is a smaller place but we have to reach further than we ever have before,” she muses. “And there are so many issues and situations that come up where we just as human beings and citizens of our own lands cannot really sit idly by—we’re all global citizens. . . . I think from my interactions with university students, these are things we’re all interested in as well. So I hope we’re all speaking the same language there [at UNCW].”

Redbone and Whitby are close to celebrating 25 years of marriage, a lifetime’s partnership that continues to compliment each other. Moreover, as a unit, they write and produce for other artists as well.

“We’re pretty good at collaborating,” she asserts. “We’re also good at bringing out the best in each others and learning, and one of the key things that we learn from others (as well as with each other) is that we listen. It takes a lot of listening to be able to collaborate. . . . When you’re working with your life partner it’s a lot about listening, taking turns and being open-minded.”

It’s also fun and fulfilling.

A part of being able to produce music for a living is genuinely enjoying the work. Redbone and Whitby continue to have fun creating music together by drawing from life experiences, interactions with people, and learning more about the world and music around them.

“It’s not about feeding one’s own ego,” Redbone adds. “It’s really about how we can help sing someone else’s song, and in sharing our story, we’re also singing someone else’s song.”

This also is reflected in “Bone Hill,” a musical/theatrical concert/one-woman show telling a family story through song. While Redbone will likely perform some teasers from “Bone Hill” at UNCW this weekend, they’re also working on a new iteration wherein Redbone wants to further explore a sentimental Appalachian homecoming of sorts. In it, she may “push some buttons,” so to speak, when it comes to connections to home—or lack thereof—triggering all sorts of feelings and memories (good and bad) of home.

“I find that there is still culture and diversity of those hills that people haven’t written about—certainly not in song,” she explains. “People tend to write about specific incidences—and those are great as well—but I wanted to talk about the land, and in general, people’s connections to their hometowns and the land, and how that defines the person you become. Even in situations where someone is from a particular area and they wanted to move as far away as possible.”

Martha Redbone Roots Project
Featuring Lakota John
Thurs., Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium
601 S. College Rd.
Tickets: $15-$40

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