Today we welcome another guest post by Kristina M. Jacobsen, author of The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging. In this ethnography of Navajo (Diné) popular music culture, Jacobsen examines questions of Indigenous identity and performance by focusing on the surprising and vibrant Navajo country music scene. Through multiple first-person accounts, Jacobsen illuminates country music’s connections to the Indigenous politics of language and belonging, examining through the lens of music both the politics of difference and many internal distinctions Diné make among themselves and their fellow Navajo citizens.
In today’s post, Jacobsen explains the cultural significance of stage patter in the performances of a Navajo country band.
Recently in my home city of Albuquerque, eighteen-year-old pedal steel player and Navajo citizen Matthew Begay was invited up on stage to sit in with country great Tracy Byrd on his classic song, “Don’t Take Her She’s All I’ve Got.”
The response of the crowd in the stadium, which included many Navajos, was overwhelming. Begay also plays in the Navajo band Re-Coil, a country western band from Fort Defiance, Arizona, that I played with during my fieldwork singing and playing with Navajo country bands on the Navajo Nation. It was a beautiful moment,revealing what many Diné people have known since at least the late 1930s: that country music is a deeply loved genre of music, part and parcel of contemporary Navajo—and indigenous—experience and expressive culture.
But Begay’s performance and the crowd’s ecstatic response also reminded of other country-centered events still taking place on sovereign Navajo land. Take the weekly Navajo country western “dances” put on by the famous reservation band, Ace’s Wild, including the dance I attended on Thanksgiving day 2016.
Ace’s was the first Navajo country western band I ever heard. I was seventeen, working as a seasonal ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the heart of the reservation, and beginning to learn my first words of Navajo or Diné Bizaad. I remember attending this band with a girlfriend, out of place in my green park service pants and leather hiking boots, and being greeted by a sea of bobbing potato chip hats, Wrangler jeans, and shuffling cowboy boots. I recall how we arrived at the community center, parked and hung out in her pickup truck with the tinted windows barely cracked for a good forty-five minutes before entering the dance. This was a ritualized event.
Twenty years later, dances remain an important part of reservation social life, where live bands play up-tempo songs and couples mostly dance the two-step, a partner dance moving in a counter-clockwise direction. Dance bands play four-hour sets, typically 9 pm to 1 am, and take one break in the middle. The “sweet spot” for these dances is between 12 and 1: this is when the band is really warmed up, the dancers are relaxed, and dancers come out in large numbers onto the dance floor. It’s a short-lived space, nestled between lots of starts and stops and logistical glitches, but catching it is well worth the wait. For me, it’s a bit of time-capsuled, Navajo reservation magic.
What I noticed at this more recent dance was the way rodeo infuses the stage patter—speaking in between songs—of lead singer/bass player Fred Thompson. Like many “rez bands” (as they are locally referenced), Ace’s is an all-male band and cultivates a hetero-normative, hyper-masculine male social space at their dances. They make bawdy jokes and rib each other on stage. Seeing same-sex couples on the dance floor is a rarity. Much of this image is created and reinforced through references to other hyper-masculine, high-prestige ritualized events on the reservation, such as rodeo. Indeed, Fred is a former rodeo announcer, and he carries this staccato, almost caricatured intonation into his stage patter. It’s an exaggerated contour, delivered with a rough-sounding vocal tone or timbre, a constant checking in and updating the audience on what’s going on in the set as if it were a play-by-play rough stock event we’re watching in real time. This is appropriate and effective, given the historic linkage on the reservation between rodeo and country dances (the first typically segues to the second). Indeed, Ace’s Wild is the official band of the Central Navajo Rodeo Association (CNRA), and typically plays after every CNRA-sponsored rodeo in Central Agency.
Since that first Ace’s Wild dance, I’ve become a touring singer/songwriter, and I now teach a songwriting class at the University of New Mexico. One of the things I continually emphasize in my class is the centrality of stage patter, and how the talking in-between a set is every bit as much a part of a performance as the songs themselves. Indeed, this is what Ace’s Wild reminded us of under the strobe lights on that Thanksgiving night: verbal art is part of the cultural nexus that creates and reinforces the social worlds we come to take as always having been that way.
Kristina M. Jacobsen, author of The Sound of Navajo Country: Music, Language, and Diné Belonging, is assistant professor of music and anthropology (ethnology) at the University of New Mexico. She also cofacilitates the UNM honky-tonk ensemble, is a touring singer/songwriter, and fronts the all-girl honky-tonk band Merlettes.