Dissect the commonly utilized genre term Americana and what do you expect to hear? A brand of country music too traditional for country for radio? A hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll that bows to the blues more than pop? A specific shade of folk music reflecting a sense of time and heritage?
All that fits the bill, but the combination certainly isn’t broad enough to suit Martha Redbone.
A Brooklyn song stylist brought up in the coal mining regions of Eastern Kentucky with a heritage rich with Native American as well as Appalachian inspiration, the singer understands how a term like Americana encompasses roots sensibilities that extend beyond singular sounds, regions or generations.
“A lot of times, marketing people tend to categorize things,” Redbone said. “But categorizing can also be very limiting. In describing styles of music you end up excluding a whole group of people who might really love this music. Because you categorized it as something else, people tend to shy away from it, thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not cool. That’s not what we like.’ We’re just trying to redefine and broaden what Americana really means.”
To that end, Redbone co-founded the Martha Redbone Roots Project, an ensemble designed to address the truer reach of Americana, be it through the folk traditions of numerous cultures, the correlation of blues and gospel sounds or rhythms that extend to the heart of Native America. At heart of it all, though, sits the singer’s Kentucky roots.
“My family is from Harlan County,” she said. “We’ve been in Harlan County since the beginning of time. Everyone has come from everywhere to feed their families in those hills and those mountains. There are Irish people. There are Portuguese people. There are lots of African-American people. The people really became the forefront of that region, but so many immediately disassociated that region from these people. If you go there, though, you see that it is very different than what that region looks like on paper.
“It’s like looking at the term ‘folk music’ or just the word ‘folk.’ Folk means anybody. It means all the people who have brought their music from their original homelands. You put that sound together and you get this beautiful folk music that’s a combination of everything you hear. The only differences come from the backgrounds of families and how they interpret the music. It’s all the same music. We’re much more alike in that region than we are different. Racially, I’m a combination of all of those people.”
With Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry on her mother’s side, Redbone relocated to Brooklyn as a teenager. The culture she entered might seem far removed from the one she left. But what linked both was the same device that unites most any form of music: melody.
‘The main music connection for me, the one thing I can appreciate about being raised, really, in both places, was having a very high respect for melody. If you have been put on your porch, wherever you are, you can’t help but sing a melody. That’s how we sing mountain songs. If you have something strong like that, then anything you add in, be it a guitar or banjo or a fiddle, simply enhances it. When you strip all of that away, if your melody isn’t interesting, no one is going to remember it. I have a very strong respect for a good melody — something your grandmother would hum as she was washing the dishes or something a little kid could hum.”
Redbone mixes melody and culture even further on her most recent album, 2012’s “The Garden of Love,” a set of 12 tunes that provide a multi-cultural roots music fabric to the works of British poet William Blake. Helping guide that project was co-producer John McEuen, the noted banjo player and alumnus of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
“The language and the imagery of those poems really inspired us,” Redbone said. “Then John put his magic on it through these beautiful arrangements and there you have it. The melodies just flowed off the page as we were reading them. “We were paying tribute to Harlan County and paying tribute to our families with this music, so we thought we would pay tribute to William Blake, too.”
IF YOU GO
Martha Redbone Roots Project
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 28
Where: Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville
Tickets: $29, $39