A while ago, when Marty Stuart started to consider music he might release on his Superlatone Records, the label done in conjunction with Universal South Entertainment, his thoughts raced several places. One place was the Mississippi Delta, where the multi-faceted artist was born and grew up and of which the gospel collection Souls' Chapel is a stirring product. Another place was the heritaged land of bluegrass music, a style with which Stuart had been deeply engaged since he was a teenager playing with Lester Flatt. Another place was the 244,000 acres in southwestern South Dakota known as the Badlands region, home of the Lakota Sioux, part of the Great Sioux Nation. It was a place Stuart first encountered from his days of playing with the late Johnny Cash.
"I've been going there for twenty years," Stuart says. "The Mississippi Delta and the Badlands region are two of the most impoverished zones in America. That's what the two places have in common. I think the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation County is the poorest county in the United States. For me, it was no marketing stretch to go to the poorest zones in America. One is where I happened to come from. The other is my second home."
Stuart calls Badlands, which he produced with John Carter Cash at The Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, a "thematic collection." He believes that if the album "has a grandfather," it is Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, from 1964. Badlands comprises thirteen Stuart originals, plus another somewhat little known song, "Big Foot," written by Johnny Cash. Each addresses the historic and contemporary lives of Native Americans.
"It is a collection of ballads, as well as a journey through the past, present, and future of the Native American people in and around Pine Ridge, South Dakota," Stuart says. "This includes the legends of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and the tragedy of Wounded Knee, as well as the modern-day struggles of the original Americans. Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull -- they are the superstars of this world."
The music on Badlands is performed by Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives -- drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Brian Glenn, and guitarist Kenny Vaughan. Preparing for this music, Stuart immersed himself in recordings of Native American music. "The first thing I was met with was the beauty of the pan flute," he says. "But I realized that that's really not my sound. I decided that the best thing I could do was stand still, make the best music I could, and put the stories inside that." The music does include contributions from two of Stuart's friends, Marvin Helper, a medicine man, and his brother Everett, a drummer and singer. "They lent their presences and their voices to this," Stuart says. "For me, that gave it deeper authenticity."
One Badlands song, "Hotchkiss Gunner's Lament," features the wordless vocal harmonizing of Connie Smith, Stuart's wife, whom he first saw perform at the Choctaw Indian Reservation in his Mississippi hometown of Philadelphia. Twenty-five years later, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the two were married.
Stuart first visited Pine Ridge Reservation as a member of Johnny Cash's band; "I was adopted up there," he says. "We played a benefit at St. Frances Mission, in the early 1980s. As John was singing a song about broken treaties and injustices to the Lakota people, an elder of the tribe started coming down the aisle of the auditorium. John was almost through with the song, but the elder just looked at him, and John just kept playing. He walked slowly to the front of the stage. And when he finally arrived, he just simply raised his fist and said to him, 'That's America.'"
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