Jen: Chip, quick, don’t think about this too much, just answer. What’s the last song you listened to?
Chip: Uh, let’s see. I’m not sure! That’s embarrassing, and maybe the song is going to be embarrassing. Let me look it up on Spotify here. Let’s see, it looks like it’s, uh, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in F major.
[Chip plays a few seconds from his phone’s speakers]
Jen: Interesting. So, I have a follow-up question for you. What do you think that song says about you?
Chip: Uh, I don’t know. Maybe that I like classical music?
Jen: Yeah, but why? Why classical? Why those instruments or that time period? What do you think those things say about you?
Chip: Hmm … I sense you’re going somewhere with this.
Jen: I mean, I was just reading this article on SAPIENS.org. It was about how this one particular genre of music has taken root in a super surprising place and how the people there have fully embraced it as their own. And I was just wondering, why?
Chip: Jen, you know what we’ve got to do now, right?
Jen: Oh, groan. I know, I know. Shall we say it together?
Chip: On 3. 1, 2, 3.
Chip and Jen: Let’s find out!
Jen: OK, so first things first, Chip. I want to catch you up on this article I read.
Chip: Yes, please.
Jen: All right, so the author’s name is Kristina Jacobsen, and she grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts.
Kristina: Yeah, idyllic rural area with lots of rivers and a really amazing kind of outdoor culture.
Chip: It’s such a beautiful part of the country.
Kristina: So, I grew up in a bilingual household. My dad was born in Venezuela and then moved to the U.S. when he was 13. But that really strongly formed, I think—because identity and also me and my sister’s approach and understandings of language. And yeah, languages, for me, have always been something that I love and that have transported me into other worlds.
Jen: Kristina says that from the beginning, her family was immersed in language, and through language, music.
Kristina: My dad is a folk singer and also a guitarist. He lived for a year in Norway and had learned all of these amazing modal Norwegian folk songs. Those were a lot of the songs that my sister and I were raised on.
[Kristina’s dad sings a Norwegian folk song in E minor]
Kristina: You know, they are super melancholic, but they’re so beautiful. They’re achingly beautiful.
Jen: OK, so this is where our musical journey takes a turn.
Chip: I’m ready.
Jen: So, Kristina is bebopping along, happy as a clam, singing folk songs, playing her flute, speaking all kinds of languages. And then—
Kristina: There was a girl that joined our class in the 6th grade, and she was from West Virginia. I went over to her house to play, and her mom put on a cassette of The Judds.
Jen: And then, bam, there it was, the seductive twang of country music.
Kristina: And they were singing, and it was amazing. I loved the tight harmonies, and I loved the twang. And I remember it feeling very rebellious, you know, like, that’s not the music you’re supposed to be listening to if you come from a little Waldorf community in western Massachusetts. [laughs]
Jen: Isn’t that interesting? As a kid, Kristina had this strong sense that country music was somehow not appropriate or not right for her in some way.
Chip: While Norwegian folk music, of all things, was good and safe and connected to home.
Jen: Yeah, but it’s not like she dropped out of school to follow George Strait around the country either. While she was secretly listening to dubbed tapes of The Judds, she was also deepening her interest in languages.
Kristina: I developed an interest in Indigenous languages in particular. And so, then, in my junior year of high school, my mom found out about a retired anthropologist, ethnomusicologist living in our hometown who had retired from Wesleyan. His name was David McAllester. And she found out that he spoke Navajo.
Jen: Kristina met up with David once a week in the basement of the local library to learn as much Navajo, or Diné, as Navajos call it, as she could.
Chip: Let me get this straight. Kristina is sitting in a basement learning how to speak Navajo and then going home at night to listen to these cowboy country stars? That’s kind of funny, right? It’s the classic “cowboys and Indians” trope, but with the pieces all scrambled up.
Jen: You know, I actually asked her about that, and she said the irony of it didn’t really occur to her at the time. But that’s definitely something to think about, so hold that thought.
Kristina: So, yeah, that was a really, really powerful part of my high school years because at the end of that year, he said: “You need to go to this place. It’s called the Navajo Nation. You need to go there so you can practice your Navajo.”
Jen: Kristina actually went on a month-long community service trip to northwest New Mexico. And she loved it!
So, the next year, she found an internship at a national park in the Navajo Nation. This time, she planned to go for the whole summer.
Kristina: And I was really sick when I arrived, and I remember wondering if I was even going to be able to make it through the summer.
Jen: Those first few weeks of the summer were rough. Kristina got super sick, and at the same time, she says that she was really struggling to bridge the culture gap. And then one day at the office, one of her supervisors comes in and invites her to a dance.
Chip: A dance?
Jen: Yeah, a dance, it was like a girls-night-out kind of thing, exactly what the doctor ordered for a homesick, and still kinda regular sick, 17-year-old.
Kristina: And I also remember, you know, asking, like, what you’re supposed to wear. And the only boots I had were my park service–issued brown hiking boots, and I remember feeling really self-conscious.
Jen: At the end of the day, Kristina and her co-workers and some of their family members packed into a truck. They drove to the community center in what Kristina calls “the more official part” of town. And also remember, this town is about 90 percent Navajo, or Diné.
Kristina: And so finally, we went in, and I remember this sea of faces. I remember there being a lot of what people refer to as “potato chip hats,” you know, those classic-style western hats, and lots of really tight Wrangler jeans.
Kristina: I remember seeing this band up on the stage that was mixed, Diné and Anglo, and I remember, like, hearing country music.
Chip: Hold on. Did she say country music?
Jen: She did.
Chip: And this community center was packed with Navajos wearing cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans?
Jen: It was.
Kristina: And so, there were all these people, and I remember my face feeling really flushed. And I remember I was asked to dance. Someone was very sweet and showed me the basic steps so I could at least make it around the dance floor. And I remember, for me, it was a really powerful evening. I loved going out with my supervisor and my friends. That was really, really cool to be included.
I wouldn’t have used these words then, but it definitely felt like an arrival moment in the sense that I had somehow been included in something that was important and that was significant to people in that particular community context. And I remember being mildly curious, like, Huh, this is kind of cool. This is a really interesting thing.
Chip: Hmm, that is interesting.
Jen: Yeah, and as a fan of country music, it really stuck with her. Fast forward a few years and Kristina was in an ethnomusicology master’s program, and she’s telling an adviser about how big country music is “back on the rez,” as she says.
Kristina: And so, as soon as I suggested that to my adviser and to my mentors at Arizona State, they were like: “Yeah, you should totally do that, you know, that’s an amazing thing. And if you can, sort of, become a part of that world and a part of that scene.” They were very, very supportive.
Jen: And so, Kristina went back to the Navajo Nation and fully immersed herself in the world of Navajo country. She played in Navajo country bands. She worked at a Navajo country radio station. She wrote her own country songs. And then, after years of conversations, late-night songwriting sessions, and performances all across the Navajo Nation, she actually wrote a book. It’s called The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging.
Chip: OK, so let’s come back to our initial questions. Did she figure it all out: Whether Navajo country music challenges our stereotypes of “cowboys and Indians”? What country music means to Navajo listeners? And how the Navajo Nation embraced country music in the first place?
Jen: Those are great questions, Chip, and I think I should ask her.
Jen: Kristina, thanks so much for joining us. Let me just start right into it with a question about you and your journey. We’ve heard about how music was your bridge into the Navajo Nation, but what happened next? How did you go from there to becoming a country singer-songwriter/Navajo country expert?
Kristina: My own education as a musician and as a country artist really was during my dissertation fieldwork, playing particularly with one band, called Native Country out of Many Farms, and just doing the gig circuit on the rez, off the rez, in the Southwest super-intensively for about a year and a half. So that was kind of my own musical training as far as country music goes. As far as the academic side of country music or country music history or all of those sort of things, that started with my master’s, learning about the history of country music on the rez and sort of its birth in the late 1930s—I mean, really not much later after the birth of country music and its own recording history in the late 1920s, with the Bristol sessions and the Carter family and all of those particular events.
So, I mean, very, very early on, right? It became a really important phenomenon on the rez, and people were listening to it mostly on these little battery-operated radios that were portable, and so you could bring them, for example, when you were herding sheep or you were outside or when you were doing chores. So, it became, like, this favored companion that people listened to.
Jen: So, this is one of the most interesting parts of the story, right? I mean, country music is associated with cowboys, and there’s the whole “cowboys and Indians” thing. It seems like a contradiction.
Kristina: For most folks I know that either love country music or go to country dances or play country music, like, country music is Diné music, like, that is their music. And so, in that way, for them, there’s no contradiction at all, right? Like, if you think about the thematics of country songs like nostalgia, loss, heartache, dispossession. I mean all those—land, kinship, family, mama, right? These are, like, profoundly Diné themes, if you know, even going back to classic anthropological monographs written about Diné people, like pre-1950 sort of stuff.
So, I think it’s mapped on so closely to Diné culture that, for me, it was always presented as, you know, essentially, like, these are Diné songs in the sense, I mean, people know who they’re written by. It’s not that they don’t know who the original artists are, but it’s become so sutured to place and so sutured to the rez and to communities there, so it was always presented to me as a Diné phenomenon. This wasn’t a research project in the beginning, right? Like going to the dance in Chinle or those kind of things, like, that was me wearing very different hats and sort of not being an anthropologist and that kind of thing. So, it was really much later that I sort of went back to be like, wait, like, what is this thing?
Jen: OK, so what is this thing? How would you characterize Navajo country music?
Kristina: Hmm, a lot of people would refer to rez country as its own, as its own genre in its own right. But I would say the sounds that it’s pulling from is very much a lot of honky-tonk. I’d say a significant amount of what some folks would refer to as “outlaw country.” So that’s the sort of group of, sometimes to include also Johnny Cash, but, for sure, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, and others that were singing in the ’70s and moving forward. And even more specifically, like, a country sound that was being produced, I’d say, in the ’60s and ’70s. Even now, when you hear rez bands or when you go to a dance, it’s pretty rare that you’ll hear contemporary country songs, or if you hear more recent country songs, they’re usually songs that are performed or were written in a more traditional country style, more with a honky-tonk sound, arguably for dance-ability. You have to have a certain speed to the songs in order to be able to, say, do the two-step, around 130 beats per minute for musicians that are listening, and if it’s slower than that, it’s kind of undanceable, so it’s also—it’s music for dancing. It’s live dance music, and so, of course, that defines a lot of what you can and cannot have on your setlist, for example.
Jen: So, following on that same idea, based on everything that you were learning about country and also thinking about Navajo country music, does Navajo country music have a distinct sound? And how would you describe that?
Kristina: Yeah, I think it does, but not maybe in the ways that people would anticipate, especially folks maybe from off rez. I would say, the things that I hear, like, if I’m going to identify a rez band, say, on the radio or even if there’s a group, say, playing on our local NPR affiliate in Albuquerque, on KUNM, a lot of it has to do with production style more than inherent characteristics of the music itself. There’s almost an aesthetic and sometimes a preference for having a lower-fidelity sound.
I argue in one of my early articles in 2009 that that is partly because it harkens back to a nostalgia for the time in the 1950s when Native bands were huge on the rez and that’s what they sounded like live—so that the recording is almost mimicking that live sound when maybe people didn’t have super-sophisticated public-address systems and maybe there was even feedback on the mic, you know, or things weren’t sounding in stereo, maybe they were even sounding in mono. But I also argue that that sound—the radio station that I worked at in Window Rock, KTNN-AM 660, because it’s an AM station, things are broadcast in mono. And that was the main station for a very, very long time that was broadcasting a lot of Native bands and a lot of country music in general. So that’s also perhaps, for some folks, the first way that they were hearing country music, as sort of this compressed lower-fidelity sound. And so, there’s actually a kind of cultural capital that gets associated with sounding older, right, sounding like you’re from a different era, as, of course, there is in a lot of the music industry now, with records and, you know, kind of going back to LPs and things like that.
Jen: In her recent piece about Navajo country music for SAPIENS.org, Kristina recalls a story that shows what she means when she talks about this low-fi, or low-fidelity, sound. She was playing softball with a few other members of the band Native Country and their families, and she wanted to energize her team. So, she put on their cover of the song called “Room at the Top of the Stairs.”
[“Room at the Top of the Stairs” for a few lines]
Jen: And the way Kristina tells the story, lead singer Tommy Bia heard that recording from all the way across the field, with the vocals low in the mix and the guitar all muffled, and he said, “Now that sounds like a rez band.”
Kristina: I would say, like, the other really recognizable sounds of a Diné country band, to me at least, sometimes you’ll hear more reservation-inflected English in the pronunciation of the singers, even if they’re, you know, singing in English. Also, the other big thing is sort of the substitution of place names, so, for example, Johnny Cash’s “Wanted Man,” that’s performed on the rez a lot. It became known being covered particularly by a group named Dennis Yazzie and the Night Breeze Band. And when they perform “Wanted Man,” all the place names are substituted with reservation place names, like, “wanted man in Tuba City,” “wanted man in Navajo,” “wanted man in Klagetoh.”
[Dennis Yazzie sings more of “Wanted Man”]
Dennis Yazzie: Hello, my name is Dennis Yazzie. I’m from New Mexico. When my band started, we just took off, and we were just everywhere because I think there wasn’t that much Native American bands out here. So, I said, “You know what would be good? Wherever we played at, let’s do a song about that.” And I was listening to Johnny Cash, and there was like “Wanted Man,” and then I was like, “Hey, that’s it.” So, we introduced it to the local radio stations here in Gallup and Window Rock. And they started playing that, and all of a sudden, the DJs were calling me and saying, “Hey, you know, your ‘Wanted Man,’ they’re requesting it every day, requesting it every hour.” So, when we started doing gigs, people would come up and say, you know, “Do ‘Wanted Man,’ do ‘Wanted Man.’”
I mean, we were just having fun back in the day, and when we heard that the song was hitting the charts over here on the rez, I was like, “Wow, you know, I did a good job, actually.” And that’s when I started, like, “Hey, let’s make some more original songs.”
[More “Wanted Man”]
Jen: Country music is clearly a special tradition for people like Dennis all across the Navajo Nation. And you came to it as a complete outsider, a non-Native. What was it like to play in Navajo country bands and really become a part of that tradition?
Kristina: I mean, the whole experience and the incredible privilege of getting to play with these groups and function, in some cases as a fully fledged band member, it was completely life-changing and amazing. Also, like with Native Country, my main band, I was the only woman in the band. So, of course, also the only non-Diné person, and so that brought up all sorts of, you know, really interesting conversations, some of them more fraught than others. So, how we were received as a group varied a lot in different places or, for example, whether we were playing on rez or off rez.
There was one particular instance where we were playing at an American Legion hall in Cortez, Colorado, which is a border town, a border town in this context means, like, a town bordering Navajo Nation but off rez. In this case in a working-class farming community off the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwestern Colorado.
And so, I went there early because I wanted to set up my gear and everything. And there was a group of older gentlemen sitting at a picnic table outside the American Legion hall, and they were wearing, like, baseball caps from the Korean War and World War II. And, you know, they asked me what I was doing there, and I said I was playing with the band for that night. And they asked what the band’s name was, and I said, “Well, you know, it’s Native Country,” and then I could see it registering on their faces that the American Legion hall had hired a Native band. And, you know, they said to me, and it’s not a term that I’ll repeat here, but they basically said, like, “We didn’t know it was a Native band that was going to be playing tonight.” And, you know, I almost said, “Well, you know, what did you think, the band is, the band name is Native Country band, right?” But at any rate. And then the follow-up question was, “Are you all any good?” And for me it was one of those really uncomfortable, bizarre moments in which, you know, there’s, here’s this community of musicians who has supported me 100 percent and with whom I’ve become very, very close. And I’m kind of having to defend our playing level or our right to be there in ways that, you know, is kind of the last role that I wanted to be playing in that particular case.
Some of them ended up coming to the gig later that night. Some of them didn’t. I remember there being a lot of palpable tension in the air when we went on the stage, and this kind of distinct feeling that we perhaps weren’t welcome in that particular space and also wondering things like, if we were gonna get paid.
So, moments like that, where I sort of was asked to be, you know, and people assume that I was the manager in that particular case, which in no way, shape, or form I was, like, I was not in any official—right? I was just someone playing in the band. And perhaps, you know, because of my skin color or my Anglo identification, that was the assumption, right, that I was the person navigating those spaces, when in fact the band had gotten all those gigs on their own and had asked me to join them.
Jen: I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people—not just veterans in American Legion halls in southwestern Colorado—have a certain idea of what it means to be a Native American today. There is a real lack of awareness, and there are expectations. So, can we take a step back for a minute from country music and talk about some of these deeper issues that might be going on here.
Kristina: I mean, based on my experience living back East and also going to graduate school back East in North Carolina, I think a lot of the expectations are things like, that Diné people or Native people in general in the U.S. and elsewhere are not part of the modern world, or that they’re not fully engaged with things like technology, or that they don’t have the same acumen to engage with the things that the rest of U.S. citizenry happily engages with: iPhones, smartphones, et cetera, every day of their lives, and, of course, that’s not true.
And also, I like to say, you know, Navajo Nation is as diverse, internally diverse, as the U.S. nation that surrounds it, right? There’s folks from Navajo Nation from every class background, from every educational background, from ranching and blue-collar jobs to very, very white-collar identifications. There’s professional golfers and doctors and lawyers, and every sector that you can imagine are represented very successfully by Diné people. So that’s one way of answering that question, that there’s a huge amount of—historically, Diné people, especially in anthropology, were described as “the Navajo,” usually spelled with an “h,” were represented as this monolithic community, right? The Navajo do this, or they do that. And, of course, that’s not true, right? There is a huge amount of internal diversity, even between, say, Arizona and New Mexico sides of Navajo Nation, or the Utah strip, where Diné people also live on Navajo Nation. So that’s one part of it.
I think the other part is that many Diné people, especially ranchers, will tell you that Diné people have always been ranchers. They were the original cowboys before any of the cowboys in Texas were cowboys or anywhere else that we stereotypically imagine cowboys to come from. And Diné people will say, “Yeah, but, you know, we’ve been herding sheep and ranching cattle and ranching horses since, for example, sheep and horses have been on Navajo Nation, and we understand that the majority of them would have come with Spanish colonization to the American Southwest.” Those identifications run really, really deep. So, I think many Diné people—not all—but many would say, you know, we are the original. We are the cowboys. Or, we’re the cowboys and we’re the Indians, and that there is no contradiction in terms between being both Diné identified and rancher identified, or cowboy identified.
So, I think it flies in the face of that stereotype because Diné people are both of those things, and because they don’t see them as a contradiction in terms. They see them as completely sutured to one another but also understand the depth of that history within their own communities, perhaps in a way that other ranchers from off Navajo Nation, whether they’re Anglo or Hispano or otherwise identified, may not have their own sense of that deepness of that history in quite the same way as folks on Navajo Nation might.
Jen: So, it seems to me that what we’ve been talking about is this role of this specific kind of music in shaping and reflecting and reinforcing Navajo culture and, sort of, Navajo ideas of themselves and who they are. And that’s not a process that just stops, and it’s still happening now, just like you said. So, I’m wondering, what’s going to happen next? Is the younger generation today embracing country music?
Kristina: Yeah, it’s such a beautiful question. I do understand, based on folks that I’ve talked to, that it is a sort of generation-specific music in some senses and that it’s sort of seen by younger folks in particular as the music of an older generation. And I think it depends on the younger folks and how they’re seeking to identify and navigate their own identity. I’ve seen a couple different things. You know, if you grew up in a family of country lovers, and your dad, maybe, or your uncle plays in a band, the chances are at some point, you’re gonna get involved in that band regardless of what you think about country music. [laughs] So, you know, in that sense, even if you’re not a huge lover of it, you might still be actually quite involved with it.
On the other hand, I definitely know young folks who completely disidentify with country and would rather listen to any other genre in the same way I think that, generationally, we see this in so many communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, right? You know, you don’t want to listen to the music of your parents, right? Or you don’t want to listen to the music of your grandparents. You want to find your own music. You want to be cosmopolitan in your own way and stray much, much further afield. And so, I see, certainly with metal artists, certainly with the rap and hip-hop scene on Navajo Nation, also folks that are rapping in, not only in English but also in Navajo, or mixing the two languages in super interesting, creative ways.
Jen: OK, so, since you published your book on Navajo country music, I know you’ve moved on to study something completely different. But I also know that in the transition, you’ve been making your own music. What I’m trying to say is that I’d love to end this episode with one of your own songs, maybe something that shows how your experiences on Navajo Nation have affected you as a songwriter?
Kristina: More and more, the places that I live and the life experiences I have affects the songs that I write, but I’m becoming more and more aware of that because, of course, songs almost by definition, especially country-inflected songs, are very place based. And so, of course, the place that you are is going to, you know, very deeply affect the songs that you’re writing about. More recently, I’ve come to write some songs that, based on my experiences on the rez, that might be heard as life-story songs. There’s a song called “Inez” that I wrote about my supervisor at Canyon de Chelly, with whom I’m still very, very close. I call her Shimà. There’s three women on Navajo Nation that I call mom, and she’s one of them, Shimà. Women who have mentored me on what it means to comport myself in an appropriate way in that space as a non-Native—but with respect.
Jen: Kristina, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your music with us.
Kristina: Of course, absolutely, yeah, thank you.
Jen: And, listeners, here is “Inez” by Kristina Jacobsen.
[“Inez” by Kristina Jacobsen]
Chip: Talk about participant observation!
Jen: I know, right? Sort of the quintessential anthropological method. It means participating in a cultural practice while at the same time observing it. But I have to say, not many people could participate as a band member.
Chip: No. It’s extremely special that she could combine her talents and her interests in this case. How about you? Do you ever sing or try translating your work to … ?
Jen: No! Nor would you want me to. My uncle was a musician.
Chip: Yeah, me too. I have family. My dad was actually a bluegrass and country singer. But at the same time, he’s not an anthropologist. That’s what’s so amazing about her work is that she’s bringing these two worlds together.
Jen: And it comes out in her music! I mean, I saw the lyrics from “Inez,” and it reads kind of like an interview.
Chip: That’s exactly right. There are so many insights and perspectives that you get from the lyrics that make clear she is really grounded with this community and this place. Just looking at some of these lyrics here from “Inez”: “Homeland Security, fighting terrorists since 1492.” Have you ever seen that T-shirt?
Jen: Yeah, I’ve seen people wearing those T-shirts on reservations and just Native people in general.
Chip: So, it’s referencing fighting centuries of colonialism and invasion into Native homelands. There are also references to boarding schools, to the bitter history, and the people full of love. You really get a sense for people and place through this kind of songwriting.
Jen: Yeah, and I love that she quotes Inez and brings her voice into it too. It’s a really unique way of communicating what we learn from anthropology. And I just love the fact that she’s able to communicate it through a song. Let’s be honest, songs will go to a far broader audience than some other forms of communicating research.
Chip: Much more than our academic articles or anything else.
Chip: And so, in the end, I think what is so special about this project is that it brings together her anthropological methods and her personal background. And it’s through that intertwining of those worlds that a whole new window into Navajo culture is opened up for us.
Jen: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. And it was hosted by me, Jen Shannon.
Chip: And me, Chip Colwell.
Jen: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with marvelous contributions from executive producer Cat Jaffee.
Chip: Meral Agish is our fact-checker.
Jen: And a special thanks this time to Dennis Yazzie and Kristina Jacobsen.
Kristina: [introduces herself in Diné]
Jen: To learn more about Kristina, her music, and her work on Navajo country music, check out the show notes to this episode. We’ve got plenty of links for you there.
This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.
Chip: Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas.
Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org.
Jen: SAPIENS is a part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. Until next time, be well fellow sapiens.