If you reach Appalachian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Martha Spencer, it will be from the top of her mountain in Virginia, probably when she is walking in the woods. Spencer grew up nestled in hills as old as time. Raised on mountain music (she grew up in the famous Whitetop Mountain Band, which dates back to the 1940s), Spencer channels old sounds, but she can just as easily create new sounds from her travels around the world. Half of the songs from his 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 Nashville underground songwriters like Lillie Mae. His second solo album, Wonderland comes on the heels of Spencer’s acclaimed 2018 self-titled album which received rave reviews from Rolling Stone Magazine (“both traditional and timeless”), No Depression (“an invaluable resource”), and more. On Wonderland, new songs sit alongside traditional songs; universal ideas, themes and tropes flowing fluidly back and forth. It’s a testament to Spencer’s keen ear for turning a phrase, the kind of gift that made 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 “the rags over wealth, joy over judgment, love above all,” in his words.
Like many artists, Spencer has found herself at home much more than expected during the pandemic. “I had a desire to travel,” she says, “and I think that’s reflected in the album as well.” Friends gone, she invited musical guests from here and abroad, some of them artists she had wanted to record with for some time, like Richmond gospel masters The Legendary Ingramettes or the great Alice Gerrard or Native American guitarist Cary Morin. Spencer loves bringing communities together and bringing Appalachian music to new audiences, and some of those collaborations, like the Ingramettes and Morin, have come from her work with cultural organizations like the Virginia Folklife Program and the Music Maker Foundation. Others invited to record on the album were longtime 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. Longtime friend Kyle Dean Smith’s raw voice from Grayson County is an Appalachian delight on the album. Being able to make music with friends was an escape for Spencer, and indeed the title track of the album, Wonderland, comes from this idea. “This song was first inspired,” says Spencer, “by someone who commented that I was living in my own little wonderland on the mountain with wildlife, woods, music, dancing, and little ones. creative projects that I like to do.” Wonderland is all about doing your own thing, an especially salient point for Appalachian women.
The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but for Martha Spencer, it was hard to see the small community she grew up in hit hard by isolation. Now that the music is starting to return to the city, now that the square dancing and stringband jams are resuming, she has turned her gaze to the wider world, hoping to rediscover the international travels she loves. She already has tours planned in Canada, Australia and Germany in the fall. As an Appalachian artist from such a rich musical lineage, Spencer is in demand the world over and was used to soaking up new sounds and ideas wherever she walked. “I know people have been through a lot over the past few years,” she says, “and I’ve personally lost some very important people to me. I sometimes see music as a place to escape some of the pain and tragedy and find joy in a moment of beauty or magic in life: fantasy, mystery and mystique still alive, a sense of belonging and place, and yet want adventure and travel at the same time.