Channeling Crazy Horse, Custer, and Cash
This is Marty Stuart’s second album of 2005 so far. If you’ll remember, I think that Soul’s Chapel is the finest piece of country music in an extremely strong year for it, so I had high hopes for this one. While those hopes turn out to have been a little inflated, this is still a really great example of what happens when smart and talented people take chances.
Badlands is a concept album about one of the United States’ most shameful ongoing plots: the horrifying treatment of Native Americans; particularly, the Lakota Sioux of the Dakotas. Musicians sympathizing with Native American causes is neither revolutionary nor unprecedented—hell, even that dickhead Ted Nugent has done that. But Stuart has spent a lot of time up there, and actually studied at Oglala Lakota College, and he and his crew have tried very hard to make sure they are dealing in specifics.
This is one of the best parts about Badlands. When Stuart sings about “Wounded Knee”, he actually knows what he’s talking about. When he does a long spooky song called “Three Chiefs”, he can actually sing from the points of view of those chiefs (Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse) in detail. This nine-minute track (is this a record in modern country music?) is predicated on each of these Sioux chiefs dying and meeting all kinds of luminaries in heaven (Great Father, Jesus and Mary, etc.), and discussing their lives with them. I cannot think of anything more ambitious this year, country or no, and even though it could have been a little shorter, perhaps, it’s dramatic and cool.
Indians are not all just old and dead, here, either. “So You Want to Be an Indian” pokes fun at those who romanticize the whole noble-savage myth: “You think my life’s a story, like a movie on TV / But if you want a taste of hell on earth, come hang around with me.” “Casino” destroys the myth that Native Americans are swimming in cash now that they’ve been able to license gambling halls. And the most explicit track, “Broken Promise Land”, describes a late ‘90s visit by Bill Clinton “to the planet of Pine Ridge”. Stuart’s voice breaks into anger as he describes Clinton’s pledges to help the people of “the poorest county in the whole United States” and how they have never been fulfilled. I guess I would have liked Stuart to have mentioned George W. Bush’s name alongside Clinton’s, considering that Bush could have picked up the ball when he became president, but it’s all pretty powerful anyway.
Stuart is an encyclopedia, and the music reflects this. The styles here are all over the place: talking blues on “Trip to Little Big Horn”, boogie-rock on the title track and “Broken Promise Land”, gentle Willie-and-Waylon waltz on “Casino”. The atmospheric and epic instrumental “Hotchkiss Gunner’s Lament” (purportedly from the “point of view” of the U.S. soldiers who perpetrated the massacre at Wounded Knee) sounds like a country track from Sigur Ros, especially when Connie Smith starts vocalizing wordlessly. There is also a whole lot of Native American influence. But somehow it all hangs together, even Stuart’s cover of his ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash’s little-known “Big Foot”.
It is Stuart’s passion that keeps this project together, but it is Cash’s spirit that hangs over it all. There is a sadness here, and a re-imagining of America’s self-opinion, that has J.R. Cash written all over it. (Stuart even makes this explicit by getting John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son, to co-produce the album.) Stuart’s voice is even beginning to sound a lot more like Cash than it ever has before.
This respect works against the album a bit, especially when Stuart becomes a little too respectful about Indian-ism, and conflates gravity with over-seriousness. This album just isn’t as fresh as Soul’s Chapel, but then again very little else this year is. But it’s got heart for days, a relentless ambitious streak, and some tough snarling guitar work. Also, Badlands has Marty Stuart truly cooking on all cylinders. He is the most important talent in country music this year.