Music » Interviews

O Sister, Where Art Thou?

Inspired by past and present, Martha Scanlan expands her high, lonesome sound


Levon [Helm] is the only drummer Ive really played much - with, says Scanlan of the Band founder.
  • Levon [Helm] is the only drummer Ive really played much with, says Scanlan of the Band founder.

Each generation finds its own path. When Bob Dylan left Minnesota, it was for the folk cafs of Greenwich Village. Decades later, when Martha Scanlan left Minnesota, she was drawn first to the mountains of Montana, and then to Tennessee's Johnson City, the Appalachian community where Ralph and Carter Stanley made their first records.

So it's only fitting that the singer would end up touring alongside Ralph Stanley (as well as Alison Krauss and others) when her old-time string band, the Reeltime Travelers, was chosen by O Brother, Where Art Thou? music supervisor T-Bone Burnett to appear in the soundtrack for the film Cold Mountain.

"I cannot walk down the street of Unicoi, Tennessee, without people recognizing me," laughs Scanlan, when asked if Cold Mountain changed her life.

As for her adopted hometown, she says, "Everyone was so very generous and very sweet and so excited that we wanted to learn about the music. It's been so overwhelming and so much deeper than I had imagined, just the people and the land and the music and the way everything is all so connected."

These days, Scanlan is touring with North Carolina fiddle and banjo players Trevor and Travis Stuart "they live in Haywood County, really close to where the real Cold Mountain is" and promoting her Sugar Hill label solo debut, The West Was Burning, which features musicians from the O Brother/Cold Mountain tours. Among them are Appalachian/Cajun producer Dirk Powell and Ollabelle drummer Amy Helm daughter of Levon Helm, at whose Woodstock studio most of the album was recorded.

"I spend a lot of time in Woodstock," says Scanlan, who's played a number of the "Midnight Ramble" benefits the revered Band drummer hosts in his barn. "Amy had a baby, so I went up there for that. And then playing the Rambles is awesome. Levon's really the only drummer I've played much with, and he ended up playing on the record a lot more than I thought. We were all kind of snowed in up there, and it was really a magical time."

Helm's backbeat graces covers of James Cleveland's "Get Right Church" and Dylan's "Went to See the Gypsy," as well as originals like "Isabella," which pays tribute to Sojourner Truth, Mamie Bradley, Anna Mae Aquash and Rachel Carson.

"It's been such a troubled time in this country," says Scanlan, that inspiration can be found in "these women who carried such burdens for all of us."

In a way, the Woodstock sessions brought Scanlan full circle.

"Some of the music I loved as a child came out of Woodstock, like Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey, the Band and some Dylan," she says. "So for me, in some ways, this record was a departure from traditional music. But in some ways, it ended up being more authentic and more true to my own roots."

Martha Scanlan & the Stuart Brothers
Kinfolks Mountain Shop, 950 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs
Thursday, June 5, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $25 at door, all ages; 685-4433 or

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