Martha Spencer – Martha Spencer
From her work with her kinfolks’ Whitetop Mountain Band to her more recent collaborations with Lillie Mae’s brother Frank Rische, Martha Spencer always sings the songs of her Blue Ridge Mountain home.
While Appalachian string band music gives Spencer’s new solo outing heart, the project’s ageless soul traces Southern music from the commercialization of old European ballads to the current generation of traditional pickers.
Topics you might expect – family (“Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby”), the scriptures (“Jonah”) and sin (“Let the Wild Stay Free”) – point back to pre-War hillbilly music. Interpretations of these song tropes suit Spencer and a supporting cast featuring parents Thornton and Emily Spencer, Rische, and Hank 3’s steel guitarist, Andy Gibson.
As Spencer and friends move forward in the Southern music timeline to more modern country sounds, the songs get even better. When she covers Elvis Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman,” it becomes a piano-driven number led by a rockabilly hellion. A version of Hazel Dickens’ “Rambling Woman” celebrates ’50s honky-tonk and the ’60s folk revival while presenting Spencer as an artist with the folk mastery and personal conviction of Dickens and Alice Gerrard. A galloping rendition of “Ruby,” a standard recorded by everyone from Buck Owens to Silver Apples, retrofits a time-tested song to Spencer’s inimitable yet derivative style.
The album proves Spencer as a songwriter – she wrote seven of the 14 tracks – and a song interpreter. One skill adds to the incredible wealth of new songs by young performers with ears for old music. The other builds off the musical preservation Spencer grew up seeing at the Gallax Old Fiddler’s Convention, a folk music gathering held in Pop Stoneman’s neck of Virginia.