‘Good Music Is A Celebration’

‘Good Music Is A Celebration’

Martha Redbone combines cultures in ‘brilliant collision’



Growing up in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, Martha Redbone never worried about what she was. “When you’re home, you’re just who you are,” she says, jumping willingly into the deep end of a conversation about race, identity and indigenous rights. “When you’re in the wider world, people try to classify you.

“I never thought much about it until I was a teenager and had come to New York and started hearing, ‘What are you?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ I’d say, ‘Kentucky,’ and they’d say, ‘No, where are you really from?’”

The answer really was Harlan County, Ky., but Redbone was African-American on her father’s side and Native American — Cherokee, Shawnee and Choctaw — on her mother’s side. She’s never done a DNA kit, but she says she looks like people from the Igbo tribe in present-day Nigeria, and “the Senegalese woman who braids my hair sometimes says her dad is Fulani and to her I look Fulani.”

It matters to Redbone only in the sense that she has stories she feels compelled to tell.

“When you’re creating music, most of it comes from everything that you are and everything that came before you,” she says. “One of the first things for me is family, and back at home, a lot of our elders are gone, passed on. So as I got older, I became inspired to pay tribute to them, to keep telling these family stories — and when I became a mother, it became even more important.”

Redbone was raised singing and playing the piano, then took a fork in the road and went to art school. She was working as a graphic designer for a small record label when she was asked to sit in on a recording session. And the rest is history.

“I think it finds you, really, whatever your calling is,” she muses. “If you answer the call! I answered the call, and I’ve been paying for it ever since! It’s a lot of work.”

Then she relents. “Really, it’s easy for me. It’s fun; it’s challenging, always driving to become a better artist. I think I have a life experience that is really blessed. We get to travel all over the world and meet different people and have cultural exchange and share our music and our stories.”

“We” is Redbone’s husband, Aaron Whitby, not just her spouse but her “collaborating partner” for 27 years, and their son, 11, who joined them on the road when he was an infant.

“We ended up in China two summers ago for a month, composing music for a play and working with an indigenous tribe,” Redbone says by way of example. “It was East meets West cultural exchange through music! It was challenging, but really wonderful.”

Now, Redbone is stopping Nov. 15 at the Jim and Joyce Faulkner Performing Arts Center at the University of Arkansas and Nov. 16 at the Walton Arts Center to perform from her latest CD, “The Garden of Love: Songs by William Blake,” produced by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder and Grammy winner John McEuen. The New Yorker calls it “a brilliant collision of cultures” and “the dean of American rock critics” Robert Christgau declares “a major find.”

Blake might seem an unlikely inspiration. Born in 1757 in England, he worked as a printer but his heart was in his poetry and painting. When Whitby pointed out one of Blake’s poems, “A Poison Tree,” to his wife, “I immediately heard a melody,” she told Pop Matters writer Christian John Wikane in 2014. “We started flipping through the work, and we saw another piece on the next page or a couple of pages later, ‘I Heard An Angel Singing.’ Then we found another one.

“These songs just screamed Appalachia to me,” she remembers. “I hope [audiences] enjoy the music, get on their feet and make that room into the church of Appalachia. There are only two types of music — good music and bad music. Music that doesn’t feed your soul is bad music. But good music is a celebration. It doesn’t matter where you come from.”



Martha Redbone

WHEN & WHERE — Performing at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Faulkner Center

COST — $15-$20

WHEN & WHERE — Performing at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Walton Arts Center

COST — $32

INFO — 575-5387; faulkner.uark.edu / 443-5600; waltonartscenter.org

Categories: Music