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A Fusion of Western Artists

Singer-songwriter Cary Morin's latest album is a collection of songs inspired by Montana artist Charlie Russell

Cary Morin, a member of the Crow Tribe, got the inspiration for his latest album from the famed western artist Charles M. Russell.  "My dad loved Charlie Russell's work, and he loved Charlie," Morin says. "Growing up in Great Falls, everyone knew Russell or his work; it was mandatory." Photo by Backstage Flash
Cary Morin, a member of the Crow Tribe, got the inspiration for his latest album from the famed western artist Charles M. Russell. "My dad loved Charlie Russell's work, and he loved Charlie," Morin says. "Growing up in Great Falls, everyone knew Russell or his work; it was mandatory." Photo by Backstage Flash
by Sophie Tsairis

Cary Morin recalls sitting in the basement of one of his childhood homes in Great Falls, Montana, as musicians from all genres, geographies and walks of life flowed in and out of his home as though they were family. 

For Morin, an award-winning fingerstyle guitarist and songwriter, his musical journey has been nonlinear, evolving throughout his life and influenced by artists and music from seemingly contradicting genres: rock, folk, blues, funk, reggae, and traditional Crow music inspired by his ancestry. He has shared the stage with the likes of Taj Mahal, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt, and performed at international venues, including the Paris Jazz Festival and the Copenhagen Blues Festival. 

But it's not exclusively musicians who have impacted Morin's career. From a childhood steeped in art, one artist in particular was markedly formative to his younger
Cary Morin's latest album, "Innocent Allies," is named after the Charlie Russell painting of the same name. The painting graces the cover of the album.
Cary Morin's latest album, "Innocent Allies," is named after the Charlie Russell painting of the same name. The painting graces the cover of the album.
years: renowned late western painter, Charles Marion Russell. Though Russell passed before Morin was born, the musician says, “Charlie's presence was everywhere. Growing up, I was surrounded by his books, letters and prints of his paintings.”

Morin's latest record, Innocent Allies, is a tribute to Charlie Russell. Released in late January, the album includes 14 songs, each inspired by and paired with one or, in some cases, multiple pieces of Russell's work. A collection of ongoing narratives, frozen moments in time, and raw nostalgia, the album breathes new life into Russell's already vibrant imagery with a reverence for the landscapes and cultures of Big Sky Country.  

Cary Morin now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with his wife, Celeste. He performs as a soloist, with his band Cary Morin and Ghost Dog, and as a duo with his wife, often collaborating with other artists on the road.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
 
 
Mountain Journal: Where did it all begin? How did you find your way to music and songwriting?

Cary Morin:  My dad was in the military and got stationed in Great Falls after I was born. I must have been maybe four or five when I started becoming aware of my folks' love for music—both traditional music from the Crow Agency and country music. I remember them having house concerts and different types of people always showing up at our house. One time, there were about four Hawaiian natives in the basement, and they were playing rhythms and dancing.

My dad's next assignment was in Tacoma, Washington. We were out there for a couple of years, and that's when my parents bought a piano. My mom traded piano lessons with a lady who lived down the street for laundry. I'm forever grateful for those lessons because she would give an assignment each week that I was supposed to learn by the next, which I never would. She would play what I was supposed to have learned, and I realized I could play the music back from watching what she did. I went on to become a terrible sight reader—I've never really been able to read music worth a darn, but I sure could figure things out. 

I started doing just that. When we moved back to Billings, my older brother took guitar lessons, and my folks bought him a Yamaha classical guitar. I was still playing music and trying to figure out how to record. I would take two cassette players—they usually had these goofy little plastic microphones with them, and I would sing a song into one recorder and then play that tape and sing with it into another recorder.


MoJo:  What was your vision when you were creating and recording the Innocent Allies record?

C.M.:  My mother had just passed away, and we sold her house to my son here in Fort Collins. There were all kinds of things in that house … and one thing that was included was a very large stack of Charlie Russell books, including all of his coffee table books and Good Medicine [a collection of illustrated letters by Russell]. As Montanans, we all grew up with these books, or at least a print or two. My dad loved Charlie Russell's work, and he loved Charlie. Growing up in Great Falls, everyone knew Russell or his work; it was mandatory. 
"Charlie [Russell] was concerned with the destruction of Native culture and strived to portray Native Americans in his paintings with dignity that was largely absent in many other artist's portrayals of the time." – Cary Morin
I've read his letters over and over, and it's almost like I can hear Charlie's voice. He always started letters out with an apology because he had a hard time writing. He could talk your ears off, but for him to sit and actually pen something was literally painful for him, so he would apologize for not having returned to the letter and then always closed it the same way: "Best from me and mine to you and yours."

I thought about this project for about a year while we were touring around in our RV, and I brought a bunch of Russell's books with us. We stopped to visit a friend from Alabama who camps on the Colorado River every summer and stayed with her for a few days. I dragged those books out to a spot overlooking the Colorado and found this really secluded spot. I had my guitar, the books and the iPad, and I looked down at the River Valley. I thought, "Well, I guess now is the time," so I started writing songs for this project.

  
MoJo:  What do you appreciate about Russell's life and work?

C.M.:  Russell was from St. Louis, but he headed toward Montana when he was 16 or 17, and he got a job working for a guy who had a sheep ranch. Eventually, he started working for cattle ranches and did that for many years while he honed his painting skills. His paintings just got better and better, but even when he became a really accomplished painter, people still didn't know who he was—Montana was not really the center of the art community, especially back then.

He settled in Cascade, just down the road from Great Falls. My dad's house was right between Cascade and Great Falls. After Russell got married, his wife kind of took over the business end of things; she had a better sense of it than he did. He would paint things to trade for a bar tab, but she had better ideas and helped grow the exposure of his work. They did a big show at the World's Fair in Chicago, and he met a bunch of people there and his career snowballed after that.

I think it’s important to note that Charlie was a friend to Plains Tribes in a time when western expansion was the word of the day. He was concerned with the destruction of Native culture and strived to portray Native Americans in his paintings with dignity that was largely absent in many other artist's portrayals of the time. He eventually moved his studio from Cascade to Great Falls, and it's still there [in the museum] today.
Charlie Russell's painting "Indian Hunters Return." "My grandfather owned a house in Lodge Grass, Montana," Morin says. "As far back as I can remember, there was a Charlie Russell painting hanging in the living room. It was 'Indian Hunters Return.'" Charles M. Russell, Oil, 1900, Montana Historical Society Mackay Collection, X1954.02.01
Charlie Russell's painting "Indian Hunters Return." "My grandfather owned a house in Lodge Grass, Montana," Morin says. "As far back as I can remember, there was a Charlie Russell painting hanging in the living room. It was 'Indian Hunters Return.'" Charles M. Russell, Oil, 1900, Montana Historical Society Mackay Collection, X1954.02.01
MoJo:  What does Russell's work represent to you, and what makes it so special that you wanted to create an entire music album as a tribute?

C.M.:  I felt a connection to Russell's work even as a six or seven-year-old because it was around so much that it almost became like family photos. I felt a family connection to his images and paintings of Native life before fences and the railroad. I was born in 1962, and my grandfather owned a house in Lodge Grass, Montana. As far back as I can remember, there was a Charlie Russell painting hanging in the living room. It was Indian Hunters Return—I felt like I knew the situation he had painted, so when I went to write that song, it wasn't hard for me because of my familiarity with the piece.  

I've never had a project like this, and I don't think people have always understood some of my work related to my roots because I've lived here in Colorado now since '81 or '82. I've played in dance bands and reggae bands and played all types of music that I didn't even know existed when I was a child. I feel like this project is a gift or something for people who knew Charlie or are from Montana.

We are also finding that a lot of fans and folks who know my music don't know who Charlie was, and now they're getting to know him through the album. I continually bump into people who have no clue who Charlie was. I don't even know how that's possible. I hope that people dig a little deeper into his paintings and sculptures after hearing the music.
"[Russell] looked at the mountains and remembered everything. Then he would go to a studio and paint everything from memory, so all those extremely accurate paintings you see of the Missouri River Basin were painted from memory." – Cary Morin
MoJo:  What was your method or process for writing the songs to accompany the artwork? 

C.M.:  There were a couple of different methods. For the most part, I took a painting like Indian Hunters Return, and I tried to imagine what had taken place right before that frozen moment in time. Right before the moment in the painting, what had the hunters been doing, what did they see, and then what happened after they got back to camp with the elk?

Charlie wasn't a guy who dragged easels out onto the plains, sat there with paint, and looked at the mountains. He looked at the mountains and remembered everything. Then he would go to a studio and paint everything from memory, so all those extremely accurate paintings you see of the Missouri River Basin were painted from memory. He could paint one and then paint another, and he would use the same scene for different situations, so there'd be several different versions of a similar theme. So, when I was putting words and music to those pieces, I'd have five or six paintings to look at that all related to the same theme. 

There are some tunes that reminded me of hanging out with my grandfather and some of the things that he did and said. Some of the songs include ideas that Charlie had. One song, “Old Timers Poem, is 100 percent written by Charlie. All I did was try to come up with classic-sounding chords and a classic-sounding melody for it.
Morin and his life partner, Celeste Di Iorlio, make up the Cary Morin Duo. Photo by Grayson Reed
Morin and his life partner, Celeste Di Iorlio, make up the Cary Morin Duo. Photo by Grayson Reed
MoJo:  Is this the first album you've written that is geographically specific to Montana? Can you describe what it was like to be emotionally immersed in that landscape and culture again? 

C.M.:  My work often incorporates themes from my native roots because I've never walked in any other songwriter's shoes, but I know that I personally write about familiar things from my life. My father was an Assiniboine tribal member from Wolf Point, Montana, and my mother was from the Crow Tribe in Lodge Grass, Montana. 

My grandpa Tom Yellowtail was the spiritual leader for the Crows and the Plains Indians. My grandpa Robbie Yellowtail was the superintendent and chairman of the tribe for most of my young life, so I was exposed to the politics of things and the traditions from a pretty young age. That stuff turned up in my songs even when I was playing in dance bands or reggae bands. My songwriting, in general, often has to do with my family, and my family was Native, so that's where it came from. 


MoJo:  Do you have a favorite song in the album or a specific piece of Russell's work that is particularly meaningful to you?

C.M.:  Indian Hunters Return is kind of special because when we were in Cleveland visiting family one time we flew our son out to join us, and he stayed for a few days. I told him about the project at some point and asked if he wanted to write one of the songs with me. I showed him the painting and we talked about my time growing up in Montana, my grandfather's house, and the barn, which was the first barn ever built on the [reservation]. I told him about this gigantic cottonwood tree in front of the house that my dad planted when I was born. Eli and I sat down and we started trading lines. It was a really fun night, and when I got home I edited it and gave it a cadence. So that song and that painting are special for me in that regard.  

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.
Sophie Tsairis
About Sophie Tsairis

Sophie Tsairis is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She earned a master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Montana in 2017.
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