David Browne
October 01, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Red Road

Current Status
In Season
Bill Miller

We gave it a B

If any ethnic or racial group would be a perfect breeding ground for rock stars, that group should be Native Americans. After all, (a) they were persecuted, (b) they remain relatively impoverished, and (c) they need a voice to express real, legitimate rage against injustice and mistreatment in their own country. For the most part, though, Native American pop and rock have been more underground than anything on Sub Pop Records. Although rock & roll is a distinctly indigenous American art form and Native Americans are indigenous citizens, their two paths have barely crossed. Over the last three decades, the only major American Indian musicians have been ’60s protest folkies Buffy Sainte-Marie and Patrick Sky, guitarist Link Wray, Jimmy Carl Black (the original drummer in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention), and the group Redbone, who spewed out a few swampy hits (including ”Come and Get Your Love”) in the ’70s. But that was the end of the trail-unless you count ”Half-Breed,” the 1973 junk-pop masterpiece from semi-Cherokee Cher. For whatever reason, though, more and more Native American music has been making its way onto disc in the last two years, and much of it isn’t as oddball or inaccessible as you would think. Last year, John Trudell-a staunch Native American activist of Sioux descent who has been lauded over the years by Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne-released his first album, AKA Grafitti Man (Rykodisc), which listed Browne as its executive producer. It lived up to the star hype, too: In a deadpan, sardonic voice, Trudell talked-sang his poems (about the Gulf War, soured love affairs, and the restlessness he inherited from his heritage) over sandpaper-rough California studio rock. If any album defined the phrase mood music, this was it. (Trudell can next be heard on the abortion-rights benefit album Born to Choose, out this month; his one track, a rocker called ”Rant ‘n’ Roll,” outdoes contributions by R.E.M. and Tom Waits.) In a more traditional vein, the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart (who isn’t a Native American, incidentally) produced Honor the Earth Powwow: Songs of the Great Lakes Indians (Rykodisc), a 1991 collection of chants that puts you smack-dab in the middle of tribal ceremonies. Native Americans are also infiltrating the worlds of country (Ricky Lynn Gregg) and rap (Boyz from the Rez). Released in August as part of Warner Western’s latest batch of cowboy-music albums (which includes Randy Travis’ latest, Wind in the Wire), Bill Miller’s The Red Road will most likely be the Native American album you’ll hear about, and maybe even hear. An old-wave singer-songwriter, the half-Mohican Miller writes stern, earnest folk ballads and plays thumpy acoustic guitar and harmonica like Neil Young-he could almost be an Indigo Guy. Beneath the placid surfaces, though, Miller is peeved. He depicts the loss of his people’s land (”Like to take some senators down reservation road,” he spits out at one point) and offers telling observations on modern-day Native American life in commentary songs like ”Trail of Freedom” (”I watched my brothers fall to the alcohol/They were going down without a fight”). Some of his melodies are conventional-Miller sounds as if he grew up with more than a few Dan Fogelberg records in his collection-but at least he tosses in a couple of wrenches like the traditional ”Inter-Tribal Pow Wow Song.” With its kick- up-the-dust tom-toms and high-pitched whoops, the song should be sampled by some rap producer, and soon. For primers on even more authentic Native American music, check out three 1992 releases on the archaeological Smithsonian/Folkways label: Music of New Mexico: Native American Traditions (chants, two-steps, and flute songs of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Mescalero Apache people), Plains Chippewa/Metis Music From Turtle Mountain (dabs of bar-band country and crude rock), and Navajo Songs * (field recordings from the ’30s and ’40s). To untrained ears, they may sound like the American version of esoteric world-beat music, yet each contains haunting music with dignity and power. Before you know it, you’ll have completely forgotten about the Raiders’ ”Indian Reservation.” The Red Road: B

You May Like