Martha Redbone brings her acclaimed musical work, “Bone Hill,” to The Myrna Loy stage 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9.
Inspired by Redbone’s family and generations of her ancestors who’ve lived in the Appalachian Mountains, the interdisciplinary theater work is the story of one woman’s return to her homeland on Black Mountain in Harlan County, Kentucky, and its coal mines.
“It’s a family story set in the hills of Appalachia,” said Redbone. “It shows how a family held on to their culture and their identity despite all of the laws that threaten to extinguish them.”
The story spans the lives of four generations of women in Redbone’s family, exploring the family’s connection to the land and the simplicity and sacredness of that connection.
Redbone, who has the compelling gospel-singing voice of her African American father, connects with the spirit of her Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw mother in her rich story of this part of Appalachia.
Written by Redbone and her husband Aaron Whitby, “Bone Hill” takes its title “from talking about the land and talking about my ancestors who were all buried there,” said Redbone. “It’s a play on words -- all our bones being in those hills and we’re from those hills and they’ve always been part of our lives.
“That land always calls us back. We go back for ceremonies. We go back to bury our dead. We go back to celebrate births.”
Redbone and Whitby, who met in England and previously wrote pop songs for other artists, wanted their band’s project to be a more “grassroots community-based music celebrating my family’s roots and homeland,” she said in a phone interview from their home in New York.
She became driven to do “Bone Hill” after they toured with their earlier albums, which are rhythm and blues.
“Most people when we traveled around the world...don’t know Native Americans are still here,” she said. “The rest of the world has such a warped view of our existence here in the States.
“They have no idea there are 573 recognized tribes with all these different languages and cultures. We’re not just one homogenous group of people.”
She saw how important it was for each group from each homeland to tell its own story, she said, and “educate people about who we are and how we came to be.”
“That became my calling -- to honor that and celebrate it in my work.
“Many of us still have our language, and our culture is still very much alive.”
“Bone Hill” was commissioned by Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater NY Voices as a theatrical work that includes storytelling.
“We didn’t expect the success we’ve been having,” she admitted. “We kind of did it for ourselves and our family.”
She often calls their music “soul,” she said, “because it’s food for the soul. But sometimes we call it roots music because it includes the foundation of all American music -- from traditional Southeastern tribal music, to blues and gospel and county and mountain music. So, it’s kind of an amalgamation of all the music.”
People often have derogatory terms for those who live in Appalachia, labeling them “redneck” or “inbred,” she said, but fail to recognize the cultural richness of the area.
Not only is it the homeland of the Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee, but the mines drew immigrants from Portugal, Italy, Scotland, Ireland and Turkey, as well as African Americans at the end of slavery.
“All these people have rich, rich musical histories, as well,” she said.
Many of her relatives still live there. “My uncle lives in the house where my mom grew up.”
The town is barely hanging on by a thread, she said. The coal companies are now strip mining the area.
The show at The Myrna Loy is a Montana exclusive. It includes her eight-piece ensemble, which will not perform at her other Montana concerts.
Music blogger Larry Blumenfeld writes, "’Bone Hill' traces Martha Redbone's personal story across a landscape of Appalachian mining towns bridging Native American and African American traditions. It isn't tripped up by uncomfortable truths and unresolved conflicts: It grooves through them, bolstered by some of New York's finest jazz and blues musicians and Redbone's own stirring voice and commanding presence.”
Charles Randolph-Wright, director of “Motown the Musical,” wrote: “Martha Redbone is a mesmerizing performer, writer, and storyteller. Her new work ‘Bone Hill’ is a uniquely American story of family and dreams -- I cannot stop thinking about its unforgettable journey. No matter who you are or where you're from, Martha takes you home."
Another recent Redbone/Whitby music project, puts music to poems by William Blake and it’s also receiving a lot of critical acclaim.
“Redbone’s unique concept is chillingly beautiful. The incorporation of truly American instruments from many cultures is seamless, and with Redbone’s tremendously lush and powerful voice driving these haunting poems, she paints a vivid landscape of Appalachia, as if the trees, rivers and mountains were all singing with one, aching, all-knowing voice. ...this is such a thorough, thoughtful and heartfelt album, I’m truly floored by the talent behind it, and the enchanting grace that pervades every note,” wrote critic Brent Fleury at the website Bold Life.
Tickets are $22 general admission and $18 students and are available at themyrnaloy.com, or the box office at 15 N. Ewing St., or call 443-0287.
The Myrna Loy will also host an art show of works by Indigenous Montana artists, “Pikuni Visions,” which holds an opening reception that night from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
Redbone and Whitby will also be doing music, dance, theater and writing workshops in local schools.