Martha Redbone to close out Wheeler’s winter season with ‘Bonehill: The Concert’ |

Martha Redbone to close out Wheeler’s winter season with ‘Bonehill: The Concert’

Native and African American Americana artist Martha Redbone will perform at The Wheeler on April 21.
Courtesy photo

On one hand, Martha Redbone has a specific story to tell about her Native, African American, and Appalachian roots in her show April 21 at The Wheeler, “Bonehill: The Concert.” On the other, her stories about family history and dynamics are relatable to just about everyone.

“I think it resonates with audiences because it’s a family story,” she said. “That’s first and foremost. Everybody’s got tons of family stories, and the real gift for me was that it made audience members reflect on their own family stories in their own journeys. And the importance of those stories that come up every time there are gatherings, weddings, baby showers, funerals or births, etc.”

“Bone Hill” is a musical work for theater created by Redbone and Aaron Whitby, her longtime collaborator and husband, that was originally commissioned by Joe’s Pub and The Public Theater as part of the New York Voices artists’ initiative and was co-commissioned by the Lincoln Center David Rubenstein Atrium.

“Bone Hill: The Concert” is a new musical work for theater created and developed by librettist/composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby at Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater, as part of the New York Voices artists’ initiative.
Courtesy photo

The concert follows the journey of Red, a woman returning to her homeland in the Black Mountain and coal mines of Kentucky where her family has lived for centuries. As a contemporary multi-racial Cherokee/Shawnee and African American family, they are bonded to their culture, identity, and the mountain despite its violent past and the ever-changing laws of the land that attempt to extinguish them.

“What I love about theater is it’s the one area that you can capture a moment in time or a piece of history,” she said. “And it can be, a day and a night and then the following morning; or it can be a week, or it can be a saga and three trilogies. But you can encapsulate a moment of a family story in and whatever time that you need, that you decide to do when you’re creating the piece.”

True to Redbone’s heritage and style, with “Bonehill” she takes the audience on a musical journey through traditional Cherokee chants and lullabies to bluegrass and blues, country, gospel, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and funk.

“I feel that the one thing that still resonates physically and emotionally with people is music. Music makes you feel things, whether there are words or not,” she said. “You can have complete silence and go for a walk on a trail, and there is music from the water hitting the rocks. When you hear the birds, there’s more music around you that resonates with your body. I think music is the one field where we still have a fighting chance to be able to share some important, powerful, profound messages.”

Martha Redbone incorporates traditional Cherokee chants and lullabies to bluegrass and blues, country, gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and funk in her shows.
OzArts Nashville/Courtesy photo

Originally from Harlan County, Kentucky, she wants to tell deeper tales than that what has been commonly depicted in art and media about the region. She tackles issues of racial dynamics between Native and African American, Native American and white, stories from the perspective of the women and the lives of people of color living in Appalachia, their culture and music.

“One of the main misconceptions about Harlan County and Appalachia is that there are no people of color in those mountains. That’s the number one,” she said. “I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about the ‘Harlan County USA’ documentary, and they said they thought that all the miners were white. They had no idea that there were any miners who were black or anything else. People are very literal. If you have a documentary out there depicting that, they think that’s it.”

But most importantly, she said, she wants to remind people of the origins of the people of the land who came before in hopes of saving it for future generations.

“I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the land and the original caretakers of that land, the Cherokee/Shawnee people in Appalachia and Black Mountain,” she said. “That’s important. Those were my ancestors that were there and looked after that land and planted those trees. Ancient Cherokee burial mounds are all throughout those hills there. Those are things that people don’t know or talk about.”

Martha Redbone closes out The Wheeler’s winter season with “Bonehill: The Concert” on April 21.
Kevin Yatarola/Courtesy photo

Redbone is passionate about continuing her educational work off the stage, as well.

She is an ambassador for Native and African American youth and guest lectures on subjects ranging from indigenous rights to the role of the arts in politics and Native American identity at many institutions, including New York University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

She includes workshops and motivational talks with grade school children as part of her touring schedule on reservations, including Red Lake, Minnesota; Cherokee, North Carolina; Yuma, Arizona; and Menominee, Wisconsin.

She is also contracted by The Department of Indian Education–Louisiana, LaFourche Parish, and teaches a Southeastern traditional singing workshop for the United Houma Nation’s Bayou Healers Cultural Enrichment Camp.

Martha Redbone celebrates her Appalachian, Native and African-American heritage.
Felicite Robichaux/Courtesy photo

She will continue her educational work while in Aspen.

In conjunction with the performance, Wheeler programs administrator Malia Machado has coordinated an outreach event at Aspen Country Day School for grades K-5 on Friday, April 21. This cultural exchange workshop will include Southeastern social dances with call-and-response-style singing and storytelling. Students will be invited to participate in a “no-pressure” fun vocal workshop in which they will learn some of the traditional music of Redbone’s ancestral Eastern Cherokee and Bayou tribes in the Southeast, known for its influences stemming from Native and African American shared histories. 

“I teach Indian education through and mentorship through music,” she said. “Young people want to know because they are not taught these things. I’m not here to preach to anyone or to tell anyone how to think. All I want to do is open things that people may or may have not heard about, about how we came to be, and how we have our resilience and say, yes, it is possible to be multiracial and multicultural and still hold on to who you are.”

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