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Photo by Grayson Reed.

Living in a Charlie Russell Painting

Cary Morin on creating Native Americana music inspired by Montana landscapes and the legacy of Western art.

By Anna LoPinto

February 24, 2024

A young Cary Morin strode out of his childhood home and made the well-worn quarter-mile walk to a vantage point, a hill south of the house. From here, he could look back towards the northwest and see a placid Missouri River hugged by furrowed cottonwood trees with glossy leaves. To the north were the high plains and a sandstone cliff that was used as a buffalo jump for millennia. To the west, Square Butte, a formidable rock formation of spires and pinnacles outlined by the brilliant Montana sky.

This landscape was harsh. It was beautiful. It was ancient. For adolescent Morin, it was home. 

“I swear to God, as a child, I was sitting in the middle of a Charlie Russell painting,” he said. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist grew up in Ulm, Montana, a stone’s throw (by Western standards) from Great Falls, the location of Russell’s home and studio, and the famed western artist’s staggering body of work was inescapable during Morin’s formative years. “As a Montanan, knowing his work was the same as knowing the Montana mountains, rivers, and the big Montana sky,” he said. From stacks of Russell’s books in his parent's home to artwork hanging on his grandfather Robert Yellowtail’s walls, Morin’s childhood was punctuated with Russell’s presence.

However, Morin wasn’t just consuming art, he was also creating it. From a kindergartener taking piano lessons to a teenager playing local house shows, Morin began his musical career early. 

A Crow tribal member, he has an important perspective on the West and is credited as one of the first in the “Native Americana” genre, thoughhe transcends classifications. With an evolving and eclectic sound, Morin’s music is a conglomeration of blues, country, folk, and bluegrass. He is the two-time winner of the Indigenous Music Awards and has been a supporting act for music greats such as Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. In his most recent album, Innocent Allies, Morin features songs inspired by his recollections of Charlie Russell’s paintings, enhanced by his perspective as an Indigenous artist and ability to observe cultural details that a non-Native person might miss. Prior to his upcoming spring tour, we caught up with Morin about his latest album, his boyhood in Montana, and Charlie Russell’s artistic impact.

Charlie Russell, Innocent Allies, 1913.

Innocent Allies is a famous painting by Russell that depicts three hobbled horses on a bluff overlooking a stagecoach robbery initiated by their riders. Why did you gravitate towards this specific painting for your album title?

That particular painting was one that stood out to me as a child. When I was young, I inherited all these Charlie Russell coffee table books from my parents, and I would sit around and thumb through these incredible paintings. In that painting, there’s just something about not being aware of what’s going on. A witness to a crime but not participating.

You grew up in Great Falls, Montana, an area known for Charlie Russell. How did his work influence your childhood?

My dad loved Charlie’s work. Charlie passed in 1926, but prior to that, his studio was downtown in Great Falls for the last 20 or 30 years of his life. His work was everywhere, it still is. His sculptures and his paintings are all over Great Falls and Montana. You can’t escape it. It becomes a part of your life. I went to Charlie Russell High School.

He was friends with guys who were like the “founding fathers” of Great Falls, who were also ranchers, horse guys and movie guys. He was sent to Los Angeles because he was knowledgeable about tack and horse gear in movies. He knew everything about the cowboy – what they used working on ranches, and why.

Innocent Allies is quite a tribute to Charlie Russell. Beyond his art, are there parts of his personality or story that have resonated with you?

He went to college for a couple of months when he was out of school in St. Louis, and he was interested in painting, but school wasn’t for him. He had his own way of discovering things, and I have felt that same way. I felt like I had the capacity to gather knowledge, but school put me to sleep. He was the same way. Charlie tried school for a while, but his dad’s buddy owned a sheep ranch in Montana. They decided to send him there for a while just to get it out of his system, and he never came home. He ended up living his life in Montana and figuring out painting for himself.

Charlie also surrounded himself with other artists and learned directly from them. When he went to Manhattan for the first time, he struck up friendships with artists who were illustrators – that was big work in those days – and learned the commercial side of painting and sketching. 

When I moved to Colorado and started playing two shows a day, five days a week during the ski season, I met a lot of musicians I learned a lot from. And I started to tour and get a feel for how people interacted with audiences, how guitar players were set up, how songs were put together.

Charlie Russell, Indian Hunter's Return, 1900.

As a Crow and Assiniboine, you’ve shared that you’ve noticed cultural details in Russell’s art that a non-Native individual might not notice. Can you give a few examples?

There’s a painting, Indian Hunter’s Return, that depicts a camp with several teepees and hunters returning with food. There is an elder tribal member in the foreground, emphasizing respect given to an elder tribal member by offering the opportunity to eat first before the others. There are also paintings on the teepee that typically signify events in the owner’s life.

I also notice details from my family’s ranching background. There’s a painting called Camp Cook’s Trouble. It’s an image of a guy losing control of his bronc around the mess tent. You can tell the cook is trying to keep control of his time and feed everybody, and the cowboy’s horse goes berserk. Being around ranches as a kid – I never witnessed anything quite that crazy – but things like it were really common in our lives being around horses daily. The cook in the painting is a friend of my grandfather.

Wow. Definitely a personal connection! In one of your interviews, you shared that the land where your childhood home was built is even depicted in some of his paintings. 

One of the scenes that Russell leaned on quite a lot was a vantage point of the Missouri River with this feature outside of Great Falls called Square Butte. That's right where my father's house was. Now, art historians debate on what he was actually looking at from that vantage point of the river and the butte. Some say it was closer to Fort Benton. I grew up near a little town called Ulm, and if I went on a hill south of our house about a quarter mile and looked back towards the northwest, I swear to God, I was sitting in the middle of a Charlie Russell painting.

I loved the quote from your website: “As a Montanan, knowing his work was the same as knowing the Montana mountains, rivers, and the big Montana sky.” 

I think a lot of Montanas would say that, and I feel really fortunate to have grown up with his work. I’m just happy to share Charlie with people.

Photo by Gretchen Troop.

What was your main inspiration or sonic influence for Innocent Allies? 

Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. My dad was a Willie Nelson fan, so by default I was too. I liked George Jones, Charley Pride, and all of the classic country, but Willie Nelson had the rebel edge that really fascinated me. The production on Red Headed Stranger was astounding, how it bounced from a country rock feel to a honky tonk sound to a folk kind of thing – and his nylon string guitar! It was like, who does this? I had a desire to take a stab at that.

The album cover of Red Headed Stranger is Willie Nelson in a cowboy hat, with a bandana and a vest. He’s got a real 1880 cowboy look going on, and it reminded me of Charlie. So that’s how the idea was born.

Red Headed Stranger is a fantastic album. So, you wanted to create your own concept album?

At first, I was dead set on recreating Red Headed Stranger as a tribute. I still want to do that, but I have this problem of how can I put out an album without having written a single song on it? I can't get my head around it. It doesn't make any sense.

I think you can do whatever the hell you want. (laughs)

Grammy award-winning producer Trinia Shoemaker mixed and mastered your album. She has worked with incredible artists, including Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Tanya Tucker. How was it collaborating with her?

Amazing. She has an astounding body of work. After listening to a previous album of mine, she said, “you need to sing more intentionally when you get up to the microphone. Don’t be lazy. Pay attention to what the hell you’re doing.” I thought about it when I was recording and I think about it when I’m on stage. It really meant a lot that she pointed that out to me. I’ll be forever indebted to her. So when she agreed to mix this album, she had me re-sing everything. It’s my best vocal performance ever.

You’re a highly revered guitar player and are especially celebrated for your acoustic finger-picking style. Several songs on your recent album highlight this style, including “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Bullhead Lodge.” Famed multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg has called you “a unique and brilliant player, songwriter and singer” and has reminded the listener that the robust sound is only coming from one guitar.  When did finger-picking become a focus for you as a musician?

It started early. I grew up with an interesting mix of acoustic music from jazz to classical, to bluegrass, to country to rock. I listened to Andre Segovia and other classical players, as well as Leo Kottke and Mark Knopfler. I found my ear was attracted to finger-style guitar players. I also listened to electric players who didn’t use a guitar pick, like Lindsey Buckingham and Chet Atkins. All that music was fascinating to me as a child.

But once I moved away from home, I became really interested in Eric Clapton’s playing. As well as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s appearance on a David Bowie album, I was really astounded by it. His blues sound in this total rock world I thought was brilliant. So I focused on electric for a good 20 years until I started hauling an acoustic guitar with me on tour to play during downtimes. Never played it on stage, but then I started playing it nonstop. I got really interested in it and was playing five, six, seven, or even 10 hours a day. 

Wow. That’s quite a commitment. 

I was on a quest to learn all I could about open tunings and right-hand technique. 

Photo by Grayson Reed.

You have a fascinating and important family history. You’re from a lineage of ranchers, military personnel, and community leaders. Your grandfather, Robert Yellowtail, was a leader of the Crow Nation and the first Native American appointed as Agency Superintendent on a reservation. How did his influence shape your identity?

When I was about four years old, Grandpa Robbie’s ranch was just down the road. So we spent a lot of time there during that part of my life. I was always around the ranch and always around my grandfather, even though I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I didn’t realize that he was a big deal when I was a little kid. He was always Grandpa to me.

But he was the first Native appointed as superintendent for any tribe. Prior, it was always politicians. He was a self-taught lawyer, he was very concerned about taking care of the Crow people in the future. He wanted to make decisions that would positively impact Crows forever. He was involved with water rights, mining, and coal deposits on the Crow reservations. He was very instrumental, we still feel his impact today.

He was also concerned with Crow culture not fading into history. He revived some of the cultural Crow events, he was always thinking about the family, ranching, and the Crow people.

Well, you’re carrying on that legacy of celebrating your culture and creating meaningful storytelling and representation.

I don’t think anybody could hold a candle to that guy, but I’m really happy that my family supported my interest in music. My parents always encouraged me to do whatever it was I wanted to pursue musically.

And what a powerful project you’ve put together. There’s a beautiful video of a performance of yours that combined both Charlie Russell's paintings on a projector and your live band. Will any of your upcoming shows integrate both the visual part of Charlie’s work with your music? 

Yes. It’s cool to see where the ideas come from because you don’t get a chance to see that in a concert or performance. It’s almost as if you’re witnessing the writing of the song.

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