In a previous Thanksgiving post, we examined one of my favorite albums, Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999). But in celebrating Thanksgiving, we cannot forget that sitting across from the Pilgrims at that first Thanksgiving, were Native Americans. And, fortunately for us, Marty Stuart recorded Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota (2005). Yes, I realize that the Lakota Sioux were not the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving, but neither was the Pilgrim from The Pilgrim. But we are using the holiday as an excuse to discuss these two excellent CDs.
On Badlands, Stuart interweaves country music with Native American themes and music to tell about the the Lakota culture and the betrayal by white men. AllMusic describes Badlands as “an album that is unsettling, provocative, morally instructive, and deeply satisfying musically as a country record that sets the bar higher than it has been set in a long, long time.”
Stuart clearly intended the album as a tribute to the spirit of the Lakota, who adopted him into their tribe. In “Trip to Little Big Horn,” he tells the story of Custer’s Last Stand as a dialogue with a ghost. “I saw 100 years of Indians, dancing in the sun / I felt the Indian power. The battle is still won / The battle is still won.”
The title song of the album is excellent, as Stuart predicts, “Well it’s a church without a steeple / But in the heart of its people / Good will come again, to the Badlands.” The three men referenced by the song “Three Chiefs” are Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. Stuart uses the song to find a connection between Native American spirituality and his own beliefs. After recounting the suffering of the “prophets to their people,” he recounts, “The truth is hard to find./ No cross, no crown.”
Another song, “Casino,” addresses a more recent Native American issue: “Card sharks take my money, whiskey puts me in jail/ An oasis of misery, I know it so well.”
The CD covers a broad span of history, including Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, casinos, and even a visit to the reservation by President Clinton in “Broken Promise Land.” But Stuart also remembers that it is an album, not a book, and the story and the music augment each other, never interfering with the other. While the album has not captured me the way that The Pilgrim has, Badlands shows that Marty Stuart is one of the best writers and performers in country music today. He continues the legacy of artists like his friend Johnny Cash, who recorded his own concept album about Native Americans in Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964).
Badlands received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It is a very good album that also tells an important story. While it really has nothing directly to do with Thanksgiving, the holiday is a good time to also remember the Sioux and the other Native Americans across the continent on that first Thanksgiving day, waiting for the force that would sweep across the land.
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