A benefit for the Mountain Roots Food Project
On Martha Scanlan’s latest album, Tongue River Stories, one of her songs begins with the sound of cottonwood trees—a gentle rustle of leaves that slips in and out of the music. It found its way there because Martha wrote the album on the Montana ranch where she lives, and then recorded it outside.
The ranch, more than 100 years old, lies in the Tongue River Valley, surrounded by ranches that have been worked by the same families for four and five generations. There is no cell phone service, and running to the grocery store or the gas station requires a 45-minute drive.
“I ride a lot of time with an old cowboy whose grandfather lived here originally, so he’s third generation,” Martha says. “He just turned 83. He’ll tell me stories that could be from 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 10 years ago or last week that all take place in same place.”
Yet Martha did not grow up on the ranch. She hails from Minnesota and spent time in Tennessee, studying old-time music. She visited the ranch on and off for ten years until one autumn, when she went to the ranch to help a friend whose husband was recovering from hip replacement surgery.
“I just kind of never left,” Martha says.
She became ensconced in the work, riding, calving, moving things from place to place—there’s always something that needs to be moved. Something about the work resonated with her, and she started to write songs.
“I’ve done a lot of wilderness trips and gone to beautiful wilderness places, but I’ve never had such a sense of intimacy with a place. I think that the work really engenders that, not just for me, but for everyone in the community,” Martha says, adding that the songs group out of “leaning into” the land.
Recording the album wasn’t part of Martha’s plan, but the idea of recording songs where they were written had intrigued her since living in Tennessee. There, she had observed the way that landscape worked its way into old timers’ songs, and something about it fascinated her.
So Martha invited a few musician friends to join her at the ranch, including guitarist Jon Neufeld, whose latest project is a collaborative with members of the Decemberists, and Aaron and Erin Youngberg out of Fort Collins. They played and recorded Martha’s songs inside the cabin where she lives, on its front porch, and even in a meadow.
“I knew the musicians I picked would really get it and be able to be influenced by the place, but it was way bigger than I expected and so profoundly moving,” Martha says. The result is an album that feels to her like autumn, the season she wrote and recorded the sounds. The songs sound the way light feels at that time of year, and when she’s on the road simply playing them feels like home.
What fascinates her now is how the songs come to mean something else for the people who hear them. “As far as giving a voice to that land, that wasn’t my intention. It was more like a process of discovery, of seeing what that voice is and how it moves people who might never come here, like playing these songs in a club in Manhattan,” she says.
Often, the songs elicit stories from listeners about grandfathers who were ranchers, or saddles once owned. But sometimes they’re about something else entirely, like somebody’s child.
“Songs shift and change as they engage with people,” Martha says. “Sometimes they are very different for me years later, and I go, ‘Oh, that’s what that’s about.’”
The songs are changing and dynamic, even as their threads stay the same—kind of like the land and the ranch. You can hear Martha this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. when she brings her songs to the Center for the Arts Stage as a benefit for the Mountain Roots Food Project. She’ll be joined by John Neufeld. Advanced tickets are available at Townie Books or Bliss Chiropractic; the suggested donation is $20.
Martha Scanlan has been touring and headlining festivals across the United States and Europe since the release of her critically acclaimed Sugar Hill debut, The West Was Burning. With the Reeltime Travelers, she was featured on the soundtrack for the film Cold Mountain, and she has collaborated and shared the stage with a variety of roots musicians including Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Ollabelle, Black Prairie, Ralph Stanley and Norman and Nancy Blake. Learn more at MarthaScanlan.com.