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Martha Spencer on Preserving the Blue Ridge Mountain's Music and Dancing Traditions

Christy Baird

As a child growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Martha Spencer constantly heard the old-time and bluegrass music emanating from the nearby Galax Fiddlers' Convention, the Carter Family Fold and other sites associated with the surnames Stoneman, Carter, Stanley and Watson and her own musical family's long-running group, the Whitetop Mountain Band.

Now Spencer squashes regional stereotypes by sharing a lifetime of learning as a mountain music picker, flatfoot dancer and vocal champion of Fiddlin', a documentary that covers her home region's rich musical heritage.

"With the culture I grew up in, it was always something that was to be shared and invited into," Spencer says. "I always felt like everyone was so generous to me as a young 'un that it's something that's important for me to pass on and keep going. It's an important part of life and pride in where you're from. Music and dance can do a lot for people because sometimes when you're from the Appalachians, people tend to make fun of the way that you talk. Or if you're from a poorer family, and there's a lot of stereotypes about mountain life. When you have the music and dance, it's something to be prideful for."

As a multi-instrumentalist, Spencer's back catalog and touring experience predate her 2018 debut as a singer-songwriter. Prior duos, three-pieces and other formations include work with Frank Rische (brother of Third Man Records artist Lillie Mae), Whitetop Mountaineers partner Jackson Cunningham and a cast of characters spanning from Abby the Spoon Lady to old-time music icon Larry Sigmon. And that's in addition to ongoing projects with kin folks as the Whitetop Mountain Band and Spencer Branch.

"I try to stay busy as I can, so I'm probably in six different bands," Spencer says of her various creative outlets. "I write a lot, and I do a radio show in Bristol when I'm in town about once a week. I do some projects filming older musicians."

Google search anyone from the Spencer family, and you're liable to find links to Martha's instructional DVDs for aspiring flatfoot dancers. See any of her various musical projects live, and you'll more than likely witness her dancing up close and personal. Both are important for the longevity of the flatfoot style. After all, the roots of country music would still thrive without any specific fiddling champion or banjo picker, but fading dancing traditions need as many young practitioners as possible to survive outside of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"The times change and the way people entertain themselves," Spencer adds. "It was a big way of what people did to get together. Still, there's a lot of people that'll come every weekend, and that's what they'll do for enjoyment."

As for Fiddlin', Spencer has played and danced at screenings in recent months to help promote the film, which focuses on the Galax Fiddlers' Convention and her luthier uncle Wayne C. Henderson's mentorship of 11-year-old guitar prodigy Presley Barker.

Per the film's website, it will be available to buy or rent through Apple TV on Thurs., Nov. 19.

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Martha Spencer on Preserving the Blue Ridge Mountain's Music and Dancing Traditions