Martha Scanlan-“Tongue River Stories”
From the years when she was with the band “Reel Time Travelers,” and since the release of her critically acclaimed solo album, “The West Was Burning,” Martha Scanlan has been touring and headlining festivals across the the U.S. and Europe. For the past two years Scanlan has been living and cowboying on a remote Montana ranch near the Wyoming border, living in a decades old cotton-wood log cabin where she has had the peace and wilderness-quiet to write a new set of songs, the songs of the “Tongue River Stories” project.
Scanlan first gained national attention for her songwriting at the prestigious Chris Austin songwriting contest at Merlefest in 2004 and last appeared there in 2009.
Her first solo album, “The West Was Burning”, featuring production by gifted multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and performances by Levon Helm and Amy Helm, was released in 2006 by Sugar Hill Records to critical acclaim. Dirty Linen called it “A revelation, an instant classic and one of those rare albums that defies genre and generation. Scanlan evokes western landscapes as effectively as Georgia O’Keefe did on canvass.” I called it the most captivating recording of the year.
The new album, “Tongue River Stories,” is a recording project about place and belonging. The writing and recording for the project is being done on a hundred year old ranch, a place which is both isolated and at the center of an American cowboy culture which runs generations deep.
Songs for this project were born out of a landscape where arrowheads lie next to fossils next to hundred-year-old cedar fence posts alongside tracks of horses set rock solid in the mud from the last good rain. Stories inside of stories inside of stories. Songs recorded in meadows as quiet and open as they have been for a hundred, a thousand years.
“Tongue River Stories” came out of Ms. Scalan’s own hiatus from the road and from writing.
Scanlan moved to the small family ranch in the Tongue River Valley two years ago. However, she was no stranger as she had spent considerable time there between tours over the last ten years where she worked with her hands and with horses, to settle into the ways of ranch work and animals, sagebrush, stars, silence and space.
The place sounds like it always has — coyotes, horses ambling by in the half-light, birds, cottonwoods shushing in the breeze, silence so deafening it almost hurts. When the last note ends, that’s what you hear. Crickets. Cottonwood leaves. The silence of nature.
In other words, the place spoke to Scanlan like no other.
And the songs were recorded where they were written. Other musicians on the album include: Byron Isaacs (bass & drums, Brooklyn, NY) from the band Ollabelle and the Levon Helm Band; Jon Neufeld (Portland, OR); Aaron Youngberg (pedal steel & engineer, Fort Collins, CO); Erin Youngberg (bass & harmony, Fort Collins, CO).
The recordings were also filmed. Dawson Dunning, an award-winning documentary film maker from one of the earliest ranching families on Otter Creek in the Tongue River Valley, was a natural choice. Dawson and Scanlan began a correspondence last winter about art and writing and place and belonging that developed into a collaboration on the project. For Dawson, whose work on films has taken him around the world and back again, the project was a bit of a homecoming; an opportunity to capture and express the heart of the place that is so much a part of him as well.
No release date has been set.
All photos by Amos Perrine, MerleFest 2009.