Martha Spencer sings in a high soprano voice with lonesome country vibrato, backed by an inspired, thoughtful blend of flatpicked guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. That description could fit thousands and thousands of Americana songbirds, but Spencer sings and writes from the point of view of someone who grew up immersed in classic country and bluegrass music with her family’s Virginia group, the Whitetop Mountain Band. Her 2018 debut album as a solo artist is still up at Bandcamp. The sound is totally 1950s, whether she’s doing oldschool C&W, bluegrass, a blues or a ballad. She winds a good yarn and has a sharp sense of humor.
She and the band – a shifting cast that include but are not limited to guitarists Frank Rische and Ersel Fletcher,, bassist Debbie Bramer, fiddler Billy Hurt, Jr and banjo player Alex Leach – open the album with Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby, a fond childhood reminiscence of falling asleep while the ‘rents are playing all the old songs. My Heart Says Yes is a simple, catchy mashup of bluegrass and indie rock: totally Hoboken, 1996. Spencer’s voice takes on extra bite, way up the scale in the rockabilly tune Hard Headed Woman, amped up with growling electric guitar and spiraling electric honkytonk piano.
Spencer blends Patsy Cline nuance and Dolly Parton plaintiveness in the aching, sad ballad The Last Leaves. After that the band pick up the pace in Let the Wild Stay Free, a smartly aphoristic bluegrass tune.
When Spencer bends her way up to those blue notes in Chickens Coming Home to Roost Tonight, it’s clear she means business, echoed by the understatedly slashing bluesy guitar solo. She keeps that strong-willed point of view front and center in Rambling Woman: over spiky banjo and fiddle, she makes it clear she’s not ready to settle down.
Wishful Thinking comes across as an Appalachian flavored acoustic take on a peak era 40s/50s Kitty Wells-style ballad. After that, Spencer flips the script with Ruby, a spare, rustic Virginia reel. Then she and the band slow things down again with Cold Winter Lingers On, a classic C&W breakup duet spiced with pedal steel and countrypolitan guitar.
They bring up the energy again with the oldtime country gospel tune Jonah and follow that with the wry hillbilly boogie No Help Wanted.
Tree of Heaven is deceptively pretty: it turns out to be Spencer’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. She winds up the album with the brisk banjo tune Rambling Hobo. Fans of real, purist country and bluegrass – the genuine article, not the legions of indie rock boys trying to wrap their dainty fingers around acoustic instruments – will love this stuff.