Ryan Allison and George Yazzie say it is hard to describe the sound of Navajo country music, but it is unmistakable once you hear it.
The twang of a bruised, old electric guitar evoking miles and miles of open space, the thump of lo-fidelity drums recorded by any means necessary, and lyrics about certain places, certain feelings, certain words, and a shared history of resilience, resistance and survival. These are some components of the Navajo country music sound.
Allison and Yazzie, who release music under the moniker Dirt Rhodes, are part of a generation of young Navajo country musicians trying to both define what it means to be a Navajo country musician and redefine the Navajo country music sound to speak to their own generation.
Both Yazzie and Allison grew up in For Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, where they played in punk bands as teenagers to get away from the Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard covers played by country music bands that dominated the music scene in Fort Defiance.
“Growing up on the Navajo Reservation, country music is a staple. You’re around it everywhere,” Allison said. “Every weekend, there’s a Navajo country band playing in every community.”
Allison said he was aware of Navajo country bands that wrote and recorded their own songs, such as Stateline and Ace’s Wild, which he called “rough, but soulful.” But he didn’t have any interest in the music until he moved first to Flagstaff, Arizona, and then Phoenix to start school at Arizona State University. First came pangs of homesickness that left him wanting to hear country music and the sounds of home, and then came the death of his grandfather.
“I kind of wrote that song in a night,” Allison said about “Old Sounds,” a track on his debut project, “Navajo Country Music,” which he self-released in September on Bandcamp, an independent music-buying and streaming platform. “What that song is talking about is missing my grandfather and the songs that he sang.”
Inspired by his grandfather, the song was the first country song Allison ever wrote, and the inspiration behind his “Dirt Rhodes” project, which he describes as sticking to traditional Navajo country music traditions, but switching it up a bit, “like ‘Ace’s Wild’ on drugs.”
For Yazzie, his conversion to country music came through discovering Indigenous rock and country bands from the past like the Zuni Midnighters, The Nomads and Sidney Poolheco – groups and artists who combined lo-fi garage rock, country and surf music with lyrics that reflected their Indigenous heritage, pride and the growing movement for Indigenous rights, land, sovereignty and social justice in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Some of that stuff is like impossible to find these days. I was lucky enough to hear them through family members, YouTube and KTNN (the local AM radio station that broadcasts Native American, country and bluegrass music in both Navajo and English in Window Rock, Arizona),” Yazzie said, “A lot of that stuff is just lost in time though, unfortunately.”
Inspired by those bands, in 2012, Yazzie started a “country-shoegaze” band called Midnight Stew. Allison recorded a cover of one of Midnight Stew’s song, “Till the Sunlight Comes Up,” which celebrates the Navajo Nation and the joys of partying and listening to music.
As a solo artist, Yazzie peeled back the noise and raucousness of shoegaze music and adopted a sound focused on strumming guitars, galloping drums and engaging songwriting that some may call country music, but he calls “country-esque” music.
On a demo recording and a live recording released this year on his own Albuquerque-based Chapter House records, Yazzie creates an atmosphere of late-night drives through rocky roads and raucous dances at country music bars. It shares a certain connection to the Indigenous country rock of Stateline and the Zuni Midnighters, but Yazzie’s music takes what they were doing a step further and puts even more emphasis on songwriting and lyrics, something he thinks is one of the main distinguishing factors of Navajo country music.
Yazzie’s songs often touch on the current political climate and rail against things like the rising racist, white nationalist and fascist movements. He also addresses anti-Indigenous laws and politicians. On songs like “The Dine Shuffle” on Yazzie’s KTNN demo, Yazzie sings, “When you see the Western world collapse/and realize there is no going back/will you raise your voice when the cavalry come/burn it all down and run, run, run?/Are you ready for the rez beat when the time has come?”
“A lot of it is from my experience and that includes being an Indigenous person,” Yazzie said about his songwriting, “I like talking about that because a lot of that isn’t being talked about. On ‘Westward No!,’ I’m singing about being a brown person in the USA these days. I’m singing about being a brown person in a racist country that doesn’t want to admit that they are. It’s about being an Indigenous person and still people having ignorance that we’re still here and how the world is full of people of color.”
Yazzie said he writes for his Indigenous fans.
Allison calls Yazzie, and his Chapter House record label, an inspiration for his own music and “the glue of the artsy, indie music scene on the rez.” He speaks with Yazzie regularly about growing and evolving the Navajo country music sound, and his own songwriting.
The last song on Allison’s “Navajo Country Music” album is a prime example of the emphasis Allison and Navajo country musicians put on the songwriting craft. On “Kit Carson Drive,” over a slow, strolling acoustic guitar strum and gentle thumping bass, Allison sings a seemingly straight-forward song about one of the main roads through Fort Defiance, but if you listen, it’s much deeper than that.
“It’s just about my hometown,” Allison said, “But it’s also a loose reference to The Long Walk, because Kit Carson initiated The Long Walk. It’s very much a commentary about the resilience of the Navajo people. We’re still here, even after a road that goes through the center of our town being named after Kit Carson, and having to be reminded about that history and trauma all the time. It’s kind of funny, or not funny, that this song came out during (the) COVID-19 (pandemic), which hit the Navajo Nation so hard. It’s kind of about that, too. We’re still here. We’re still alive. We’re still a people. We’re still a nation. We’re still making music.”