Appalachian songstress Martha Spencer's new album Wonderland released today

Article Contributed by HearthMusic | Published on Saturday, September 3, 2022

If you reach Appalachian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Martha Spencer, it’ll be from the top of her mountain in Virginia, likely when she’s out walking in the woods. Spencer grew up nestled into hills as old as time. Raised in mountain music (she grew up in the famed Whitetop Mountain Band, which dates back to the 1940s), Spencer channels the old sounds, but she can just as easily create new sounds from her worldly travels. Half of the songs on her new album, Wonderland, coming September 2, 2022, are newly written, showcasing songwriting influences from classic icons like Dolly Parton and Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard to modern underground Nashville songwriters like Lillie Mae. Her second solo album, Wonderland comes on the heels of Spencer’s acclaimed self-titled 2018 album that saw rave reviews from Rolling Stone Magazine (“both traditional and timeless”), No Depression (“an invaluable resource”), and more. On Wonderland, new songs rub shoulders with traditional songs; universal ideas, themes, and tropes fluidly passing back and forth. It’s a testament to Spencer’s clever ear for turning a phrase, the kind of gift that used to make country singers famous. In Spencer’s hands, the songs shine with a humble beating heart, speaking the truths of her small mountain community, while telling the stories of the music and the people she grew up with, the kind of people who put “rags over riches, joy over judgment, love over all,” in her words.

Like many artists, Spencer found herself at home a lot more than normally planned during the pandemic. “I was longing for travel,” she says, “and I think that reflects within the album as well.” Missing friends, she invited musical guests from near and far, some of them artists she’s wanted to record with for a while, like Richmond gospel masters The Legendary Ingramettes or the great Alice Gerrard or Native Americana guitarist Cary Morin. Spencer loves to bridge communities and bring Appalachian music to new audiences, and some of these collaborations, like the Ingramettes and Morin, came from her work with cultural organizations like the Virginia Folklife Program and Music Maker Foundation. Other folks invited to record on the album were long-time friends and collaborators like honky-tonk singer Luke Bell, bluegrass fiddler Billy Hurt Jr., Appalachian trio The Blue Ridge Girls, or Cajun fiddler Joel Savoy. The rough hewn vocals of longtime friend Kyle Dean Smith of Grayson County are an Appalachian delight on the album. Being able to make music with friends was an escape for Spencer, and in fact the title song of the album, Wonderland, comes from this idea. “That song was first inspired,” says Spencer, “by someone commenting on me living in my own little wonderland on the mountain with the wildlife, woods, music, dancing and little creative projects I like to do.” Wonderland is about doing your own thing, an especially salient point for women in Appalachia.

Women passed Appalachian music down from generation to generation, many never getting any outside credit for their work, and Spencer herself comes from a long line of musical matriarchs. When writing or choosing material for the album, Spencer wanted to emphasize and push forward songs that featured powerful women, countering that old English ballad trope of women being driven to an early grave because of their men. These are songs of home and community, but also of darker things like ghosts and hauntings. In Appalachian music, hope and despair, life and death have always intertwined as thoroughly as kudzu vines. The lead single, “Enchantress,” was inspired by Spencer’s love of old horror movies and Halloween, while “Creekfield Woman,” written by local brothers Greg and Herb Yates, tells the story of a local ghost that frightened Spencer when she was a child. Some of these hauntings are playful to Spencer, but there’s an undercurrent here of something deeper. It’s a spiritual sense and wisdom that you get from studying the music of long dead ancestors. “Someone’s story isn’t over after they are gone,” Spencer explains. “It keeps being sung, finding justice and staying alive through a story in song.”

The pandemic’s been hard on everyone, but for Martha Spencer it was difficult to see the small community that she grew up in hit hard by the isolation. Now that music is starting to come back into the town, now that square dances and stringband jams are starting up again, she’s turned her gaze back to the larger world, hoping to get back to the international travel she enjoys. She’s already got tours planned for Canada, Australia, and Germany in the Fall. As an Appalachian artist who comes from such a rich lineage of the music, Spencer’s in demand globally and was used to soaking up new sounds and ideas everywhere she rambled. “I know folks have been through a lot in the last few years,” she says, “and I personally have lost some very important people to me. I see music sometimes as a place to escape some of the sorrows and tragedies and find some joy in a moment of beauty or magic in life: the fantasy, the mystery, and the mystical still alive, a sense of home and place, and yet longing for adventure and travel at the same time.”