Showcasing the Arts

National Award

Martha Redbone

Harlan County native

Martha Redbone is a vocalist, songwriter, composer and educator. She is known for her music gumbo of folk, blues and gospel from her childhood in Harlan County infused with the eclectic grit of New York City. Inheriting the powerful vocal range of her gospel-singing African-American father and the resilient spirit of her mother’s southeastern Kentucky heritage, Redbone broadens the boundaries of American roots music. With songs and storytelling that share her life experience as an Afro-Indigenous woman and mother navigating the new millennium, Redbone gives voice to issues of social justice, connecting cultures and celebrating the human spirit. Her latest album “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake,” produced by Grammy winner John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is “a brilliant collision of cultures” (The New Yorker magazine). Redbone’s works are in partnership with longtime collaborator/husband Aaron Whitby. As 2020 Drama Desk Award recipient for Outstanding Composer in a Play for “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf” at New York City’s Public Theater, other works include “Bone Hill: The Concert”, a multidisciplinary theatrical concert touring nationally, “The Talking Circles” at the New York Theatre Workshop and “Black Mountain Women,” currently in development at The Public Theater.

What does this distinction mean to you?

To be recognized for contributions to the arts in my family’s home state is a tremendous honor, and I only wish my mother was alive to share this honor with me; she would be so proud. I know my family are. We have lived in Harlan County for more than a century, my grandparents were hard workers, my grandfather was a miner, my grandmother a homemaker, hairdresser and seamstress, my uncle a high school football coach, and my mother was the valedictorian of her graduating class at Lynch Colored School during the segregation era. They helped raise me and gave me the confidence to work and study hard and dream big. There’s a long history to be proud of and a legacy I’m honored to descend from and will continue celebrating our state’s resilience and all our cultural achievements. I would not be a musician without Kentucky in my blood!

What are your fondest memories of being a young musician performing in Kentucky?

There are many, but one of my fondest Kentucky music memories came from our music teacher, Mrs. Gerlach, who taught us a lot of pioneer songs and singing in three-part harmony with our class. Our school had a great glee club when I was a kid, and I’ve always loved music and singing my whole life.

What lessons did you learn in Kentucky that you believe have contributed to your success in the music industry?

The greatest lessons I have learned are determination, tenacity and loyalty. These are all qualities needed to have a long-term career in music. We have some of the most rugged and yet serene, beautiful lands in Kentucky. We have mountains to climb, rivers and lakes and, similarly in life, we always have challenges to overcome. I see myself as a reflection of the land my family and ancestors come from, through their strength and resilience is how I am still here.

Why do you think the arts are important?

The arts are a vital part of the development of creative minds, just as reading, writing and math — one feeds the other and all are important to practice. The arts save lives, I know many people who have shared that they might have not survived without music, writing poetry, or painting and drawing. The arts have a way to tap into one’s own soul or spirit in a way that is similar to prayer, or the search for truth, and it also brings communities together, nothing could be more healthy and satisfying than connecting communities through the arts. Kentucky has a rich history of arts and culture and I’m very honored to share in this year’s recognition with all the nominees past and present.