In October 2005, at a benefit for Missoula’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, or PEAS Farm, former Missoula musician Martha Scanlan took the Crystal Theatre stage. The intimate 100-seat venue was filled with the usual green-thumbed, green-living charity concertgoers, from organic farmers straight out of yoga class to poets straight out of the Kettlehouse, and lots of children. It was exactly the sort of crowd Scanlan remembered and missed from her years in Missoula, a scene she’d longed for after heading to Tennessee to further her musical pursuits roughly seven years earlier. So she treated the audience to a set of originals that had never before been performed in public, a special sneak-peek at new material the emerging songwriter had been experimenting with on her own.
This week, those songs, recorded under the guidance of producer Dirk Powell (The Wilders, Linda Ronstadt) and backed by an impressive roster of roots musicians, will be released by Sugar Hill Records, marking Scanlan’s long-awaited solo debut.
“Inevitably there is Montana written all over this record,” Scanlan says from her current home in eastern Tennessee. “It is a place I love, dream about, miss terribly, feel complete when I am reunited with it.”
That Montana is a big part of her new album, The West Was Burning, is evident in the album’s content. Scanlan, who taught herself how to play guitar while living in Missoula in the 1990s, articulates glimpses of loneliness, flirtation, mourning and divinity, all set against the Western landscape she pines for. For instance, on the title track she sings, “And if I could be a river winding down a mountain/I would twist and curl and turn and tumble down to you.”
“Up on the Divide” is another track dealing specifically with Montana, although in a more political way. At first the song follows the stark cycles of ranch life, until the “coal company man” appears in the last verse to “swallow your cattle, then he’ll swallow your soul and dig you a grave about 10 acres wide.”
Scanlan wrote the song after attending a friend’s wedding in Eastern Montana, where, she says, she met “fourth-generation ranchers fighting for their lives against coal bed methane gas drilling.”
Scanlan, a Minnesota native, left Missoula and her job as a wilderness program counselor working with troubled youth in the late 1990s to attend East Tennessee State University’s prestigious Center for Appalachian Studies and its Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Program. Though she started playing music in Montana, she only started songwriting in Tennessee.
“I started writing when I moved there and was immersed in traditional music, but I wrote about missing the west,” Scanlan says. “It is a constant gravitational pull—I sometimes wonder if it shows up in my physical body, if I am actually leaning westward when I think I am standing up straight.”
Shortly after arriving in Tennessee, Scanlan joined several other old-time musicians to form The Reeltime Travelers. The perpetually touring band, which traveled through Missoula regularly, became a springboard for Scanlan and a showcase of her newfound writing talents. She first garnered national attention in 2003, winning both first and second place in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest, a competition judged by the likes of Gillian Welch and Jim Lauderdale. Meanwhile, roots music was experiencing a resurgence thanks to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and Reeltime Travelers ended up landing touring gigs alongside Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley. That exposure led to T-Bone Burnett discovering the band and choosing a Reeltime Travelers track, “Like A Songbird That Has Fallen,” for the Oscar-nominated Civil War-era film Cold Mountain. Scanlan’s pure, nearly anachronistic singing was showcased to a national audience next to offerings from Krauss and the White Stripes’ Jack White.
But despite the band’s increasingly high profile, the weight of constant touring led Reeltime Travelers to break up in 2005 with little notice.
“Our stealth approach to breaking up was not unlike our stealth approach to success in the music business,” Scanlan jokes.
The disbanding, however, afforded Scanlan time to work on her own music, and the logical next step was to record her original songs. The result, The West Was Burning, is markedly different from the standard Reeltime Travelers sound.
“This record was an opportunity to do something outside of the band and to explore the world of music outside of old-time music,” she says. “A lot of these songs seemed to want something different…”
Producer Powell, an old-time and Cajun music guru, recorded the album with Scanlan at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
“I didn’t feel ready when it came time to record, so in my mind I ended up going up to Woodstock with the sense that we’d mess around with some songs up at Levon’s and see what we came up with,” she says. “So there’s a sense of looseness and joy about it, as well as the intimacy of hanging out with dear friends in a great big wood space with the snow falling outside.”
Although Scanlan compares the process of making the album to participation in an old-time jam session, the instrumentation and soul of the album are not limited to that particular genre. Powell plays many different instruments, including his trademark Cajun fiddle. Helm and his daughter Amy both play drums. Amy’s Ollabelle bandmate Glen Patscha also contributes. In all, there’s electric guitar, piano, dobro, guitar, percussion and accordion.
And while the album was recorded in New York, its trip from the studio into the hands of listeners included several stops in Missoula: Scanlan visited dB Sound to listen to rough cuts on the high-end stereo systems; the album’s cover and liner photos were shot at the Moon-Randolph Homestead and on the Rocky Mountain Front by former Independent photo editor Yogesh Simpson; and last September, reprising her PEAS Farm benefit performance, Scanlan, who still visits over the summers, sang many of the new songs at Missoula’s inaugural River City Roots Festival.
“Missoula is so nourishing and probably still my favorite place to play,” she says. “People dance and engage and have fun and give so much back. It’s what community is all about and what is at the essence of old-time and traditional music. It’s not so much about performing as it is about everyone doing something together.”
The kicker is that Sugar Hill’s promotion of The West Was Burning includes a nationwide tour with no Missoula date scheduled. “I am still hoping to play in Missoula this summer,” Scanlan says, though she’s unable to confirm anything.
Judging by her continuing attachment to her former home, it’d be hard to imagine that concert not coming, one way or another, to fruition.