Native Americans Are Writing the Most Powerful Country Music Today
For decades, country music has symbolized all that is white, Southern and male in our culture.
In recent years, that's meant endless numbers of songs about cold beers, trucks and girls in skin-tight jeans. It's meant the increasing popularity of "bro country." And it's meant the total loss of the honesty and integrity country music stood for in its original form. For everyone, that is, except a vibrant group of Native American country singers.
Once relegated to the stereotype of savage Indians opposed to the classic cowboys of country, Native American artists such as Wayne Garner, Ali Fontaine, Desiree Dorion and John McLeod are writing some of the most powerful stories in country music today. They are the true keepers of country music's original purpose.
"A lot of people haven't had the opportunity to hear music from our people outside of drums and rattles," Juno-nominated Native country artist Tracy Bone told Mic. But what people will actually hear from most top Native American country singers are stories highlighting struggle, honesty and integrity — the values traditional country music was founded on and ones that it too often lacks today.
"Today's country is not as intimate," Bone said. "It doesn't come from the same place that it used to come from, as far as topics and things they're talking about now."
Bone believes that thanks to their heritage and position, Native American country artists are better equipped than many of mainstream artists to take country back to its roots.
"We've gone to a place to where we are more aware of our history," Bone said. "We've taken that time to find out more about ourselves as people, and that helps us stay true to what country truly is — which are those stories, those real stories."
Bone's "Woman of Red" is one such brutally honest tale of being true to one's values in an unfriendly cultural landscape.
Desiree Dorion — of Cree, Métis and Ojibwe heritage — and Bone are mutual admirers of each other's music and share their resentment for mainstream country.
"I find [country's] gotten a bit fluffy, you know, the whole idea of drinking all the time and sitting on tailgates," Dorion told Mic. "When you listen to old-time country ... there's more depth to the characters and their stories, in terms of the values of hard work and integrity and all of those things that attracted me to country music."
Dorion has experienced the same raw, generational poverty that rooted so much original blues and country music. Her mother worked two jobs to support her family while her community healed from the scars left by the Canadian residential school system — a misguided attempt to strip aboriginal people out of their communities and force them to assimilate.
Dorion grew up understanding the values of integrity, commitment and hard work, and her songs only highlight them. On "Bad Outlaw," she describes the struggle to overcome alcoholism, something her family — and the larger Native American community — has struggled with for years.
That's because trends don't make an authentically good country song — the truth does. "When you hit the right chord with people, it doesn't matter what color you are or where you came from. They're going to tune in and like it and hear it," said John McLeod, a Métis country artist from the Ojibwe tribe.
And though it isn't a part of the mainstream narrative of country music, many country artists have been all too familiar with the truths of the Native American experience. Two of the biggest names in traditional country are actually of Native American descent — Hank Williams was Cherokee and Creek, and Crystal Shawanda is Ojibwe. Many more have been active supporters of the Native American community throughout their careers, undermining the typical cowboy and Indian dichotomy. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings both did notable work supporting Native Americans,
The community's true champion, though, was also mainstream country's favorite son, Johnny Cash. Throughout his long and foundational career, Cash was a staunch supporter of the Native American community — even going so far as to ignore President Nixon's request for songs describing the struggles of the white working-class man. He chose instead to sing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," a somber song about a Native American war hero.
So in turn, country music has long been important to the very populations mainstream country always seemed to ignore. Wayne Garner, an Oklahoma-raised Cherokee artist, explained to Mic that "music has always been a big part of Native American tradition.
"That falls in line with what I'm doing, the issues I tackle, across the board," Garner said.
Garner said carving out a space for himself and his band in country has not been the easiest thing. He's faced discrimination, skepticism and disrespect throughout his journey. But his upbringing gave him the strength to fight through it.
"Everything we do is putting our nose to the grindstone," Garner said. "And that's gotta come from somewhere. Everything we do stems back from our forefathers and our heritage."
Heritage, tradition, family, the heartland — these are country music's true values, and they are the values that today's Native American country artists understand in a deeply personal way. The stories they're telling reach far beyond the reservation. It's time the rest of the country music community put down the Budweisers and took notice.