Martha Redbone brings rich music mix to Green Music Center
Singer and songwriter Martha Redbone isn’t easily categorized and that’s what makes her music so intriguing.
She draws on her family’s Cherokee, Choctaw, Scotch-Irish and African-American heritage, with roots in the coal-mining country around Harlan, Kentucky - blended with an adolescence spent in Brooklyn and later, studies in London - to create a musical sound that is all her own.
“People can’t really know how huge the melting pot was in those hills,” Redbone said, with freed slaves coming after the Civil War to live among indigenous tribes and European settlers.
She has gathered up all of those influences and invested them in a dramatic, musical stage work she co-created with Aaron Whitby and titled “Bone Hill: The Concert.”
She’ll head a cast of eight actor/musicians in a performance of the show Thursday, Jan. 24, in Weill Hall at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center.
“It’s really written almost like a one-woman show with a band,” Redbone said by phone from her Brooklyn home. “I play the characters in my family, and the band members play the townspeople.”
The story follows Redbone as she travels in time back to her own childhood and beyond that, to share the stories of four generations of the women and her family.
“I just wanted to honor my family with if this rich heritage,” she said. “I need to celebrate that, because people think we no longer exist.”
You’ll hear some pure gospel music and some Native American chants mixed with Appalachian folk music, rockabilly, country, soul and rhythm and blues in her work, for a blend that is rare even in the world of roots music.
“We tell their stories through songs,” Redbone explained. “The fun part is that the music goes along with the timeline of the story.”
Redbone has a history of tackling ambitious and unusual projects. In 2012, she released her fourth album, “The Garden of Love - The Songs of William Blake,” setting the 19-century English poet’s words to Redbone’s music, drawing on all her cultural influences.
“‘Garden of Love’ was a kind of a catalyst, which ended up inspiring ‘Bone Hill,’” Redbone recalled.
It was a challenging period during the singer’s life.
“I was a new mom at the time, and my mother and my aunt had died within a month of each other. I was losing my memories of my community and wanted to celebrate the mountain community,” she said. “I was not inspired to make another R&B record at that time, so I made a mountain music record.”
While the combination of Redbone’s musical mix and classic poetry might seem odd at first, she found it a perfect fit.
“The poetry was so fitting,” she said. “It’s built like music. Hearing it, I always thought it would fit that music.”
Far from being gone and forgotten, Redbone believes her “mountain community” is still strong.
“I think we’re the same as ever,” she declared. “We’re always pushing forward, to have a voice and be visible.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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