SHIPROCK, N.M. -- They started out from hamlets deep in the Navajo Nation, driving hours on washboard roads. When the Saturday night crowd finally arrived at Redd's, the parking lot swelled with pickups.
Wearing Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, revelers danced under the dim lights to bands playing outlaw country classics by singers such as Waylon Jennings. Between songs, couples spoke to each other in English and Dine Bizaad, the Navajo language enduring in this part of the West.
"I'm not silversmithing or painting, but the music I make is still a kind of art," said Travis Mose, 42, the vocalist for The Wanderers, a Navajo country band whose musicians drove two hours from Halchita, Utah, to perform that recent night in Shiprock. "This music touches our people inside."
At highway honky-tonks, casino lounges and far-flung dance halls, a form of music that many associate with rural white America is flourishing in the heart of Indian country. Dozens of bands vie for shows on the circuit each week, reflecting how one of the largest tribes in the U.S. is shattering long-held stereotypes of "cowboys and Indians."
This reshuffling of identities is part of country music's malleable reach around the world, as country scenes prosper in places as varied as Brazil, Iran and Kenya.
While other American Indian tribes have long put their own stamp on country music, none has done so quite like the Navajo, who have forged a constantly changing genre that chronicles life on the reservation and beyond.
One factor nurturing the music's vibrancy is the sheer size of the Navajo Nation, spreading over 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Dine, as many Navajo prefer to call themselves, number more than 330,000 on reservation lands and beyond.
Dine-speaking DJs on radio stations like KTNN broadcast country songs across an area larger than West Virginia. Throughout the reservation, ranching skills like sheep butchering and bronco- and bull-riding are prized.
Defining just what comprises Navajo country music depends on who's talking. Generally speaking, the genre draws from a canon by country legends including Merle Haggard and Buck Owens -- more tilted, perhaps, to the Southwest than Nashville -- sometimes blending Dine phrases into the songs.
Teachers, sheep ranchers, construction workers and others with day jobs make up most bands. They largely play covers, paying tribute not just to outlaw country singers but to legendary Dine country bands like the Wingate Valley Boys and the Navajo Sundowners.
The musicians often make do without managers or road crews, arranging their own shows and driving themselves across vast expanses to their next performance.
Some well-known groups like Stateline, from White Cone, Ariz., whose members support themselves full time by playing as many as four shows a week, also compose their own music.
Even for those who can two-step, the scene can be challenging for outsiders to access, involving Navajo bands often playing for predominantly Navajo audiences.
One recent night at Sports Page, a dive bar in the border town of Gallup in western New Mexico, the cover charge was $2 to see Full Country Band, a veteran Navajo country ensemble from Tohatchi, N.M.
Inside the cramped venue, couples swirled for hours on the dance floor as the Stetson-clad musicians belted out classics. Photographs and interviews by outsiders were not allowed, the manager of Sports Page said.
Some who are open to talking explain that country music may be a natural fit for a people who have long harnessed traditions from other cultures, adapting them so thoroughly that they become Navajo.
"To put it simply, we're the original cowboys," said Travis Friday, 40, the leader of Stateline the band from Arizona. "Now we walk this line between Anglo ways and our own culture. You could say our music tries to bridge worlds a little."
A Section on 12/01/2019
Print Headline: For Navajo, country music swings