Fans of old time string band music throughout the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina, and Northeast Tennessee are well familiar with the name Martha Spencer.
Martha has been a long time member of the Whitetop Mountain Band, one of the longest tenured and most popular old time string bands in the country. Founded in the 1940s by noted fiddler Arthur Hash, Martha’s parents joined in the 1970s and the Spencer family has been synonymous with Whitetop Mountain Band ever since.
Whitetop Mountain Band fans can vividly describe Martha’s harmonies, multi-instrumental proficiency – she can play guitar, fiddle, banjo, and bass -, and her energetic flatfootin’.
After many years traveling and recording with Whitetop Mountain Band and a slew of other projects, Martha Spencer has finally released her debut solo record, a collection of tunes rooted in old time Appalachian and country traditions.
I recently caught up with Martha to chat about the new record, playing music with her family, and flatfootin’.
BRO – I know you have been playing and recording for years, but this is the first record with just your name on the cover. How’s it feel?
MS – I am excited and happy to finally have a solo album out. I have been writing songs for a long time, so it was fun to get to record some of these with some of my favorite people. I got to have my family and a lot of close friends on the record, which made it special. I think this album encompasses a lot of the styles I like, and it’s got a bit of variety and branching out on it.
BRO – What are your first musical memories with your family?
MS – Well, I don’t know if I ever recall without music in my family. My dad would always be playing his fiddle every night as I went to sleep as a child. My parents took me along to little mountain dances and festivals ever since I was in diapers. My mom would teach a lot of music classes, and I would go along there, too. My cousin, Audrey, would bring over a fiddle she had made for Daddy to try out, or my cousin Dean would be having a jam at his house. There were always a lot of instruments and musicians around as long as I remember. I know my Mom and Dad had little instruments for me and my brother to mess around with since we were really little. I was a dancer first, but I know I first got more serious in playing when I was seven or so on the guitar first, and my dad would have me back him up on chords when he would play fiddle tunes.
BRO – I have been a student at the Mountain Music School in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where I know you have been an instructor. What kind of satisfaction do you get imparting the traditions of Appalachian music to younger generations?
MS – I think Mountain Music School is an awesome week with special folks and I always feel honored to be a part of that. Passing on the mountain music means a lot to me. I think being proud of where you are from, your local culture and traditions, and respecting the older generations and the knowledge they have to offer are all really important. Every time I play a tune, I think about who I learned it from, and a little piece of that person lives on forever in that tune, I believe. I think so fondly back on my family and friends that I learned from every time I pick up an instrument, and I hope whoever I teach something to will maybe think back on me in the same way someday.
BRO – We are featuring “Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
MS – That’s basically a story of my childhood and life growing up on Haw Orchard Mountain in the Whitetop area. The sights and sounds of my daddy fiddling, my momma singing, and all the animals we had around the place. It’s a sentimental song for me about how much I appreciated growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains with wonderful parents and surrounded by music and wildlife.
BRO – Can you teach me to dance like that?
MS – Why, sure I can!!!
Martha might have bitten off more than she can chew if she really thinks she can get me flat footin’ . . . . but I’m game!
For more information on Martha Spencer, the new record, on when she will be on stage near you, please flat foot right over to her website.
In the meantime, check out “Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby,” along with brand new tunes from The Bottle Rockets, Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers, Fastball, Tellico, and many more on this month’s Trail Mix.