Review of ‘Bone Days’ – Billboard Magazine

Trudell Lets Words Do The Talking

Daemon Artist Combines Poetry With Music On ‘Bone Days’

by Jim Bessman

NEW YORK – John Trudell’s unique mix of poetry and Native American traditional music is hard to categorize-especially for Trudell himself.

“In practical reality, it’s spoken word with music behind it,” says Trudell, a deeply compelling artist who emerged from many years of hardcore political activism in 1982 with his initial release, Tribal Voice. “But I really don’t have a description for it.”

This isn’t to say, though, that Trudell’s music is hopelessly indescribable. On his new Daemon album, Bone Days, his intensely delivered recitations are backed by his band Bad Dog’s ethereal guitars and given heightened otherworldly power by the traditional Native American vocal chants of the band member known as Quiltman.

Reaching Out

Trudell-who hails from the Santee Sioux reservation near Omaha, Neb.-says he strives to combine poetry with music as a means of “reaching out, so to speak. We’re of a generation that didn’t have any poets,” the 55-year-old notes. “The only poets that were dangled in front of us were dead, and we didn’t have our own, because the ones who were became rock stars-so they’re not recognized as poets but [as] singer/songwriters. But there’s a place for spoken word in our reality.”

Indeed, Trudell wants the words to be “the source of feeling” in his songwriting, “and then the music becomes part of that feeling and carries it. The way it usually starts is that I get lines in my head, as in [Bone Days’ cynical political commentary] ‘Carry the Stone,’ where I was walking through airport security in London a few years ago and they were being unnecessarily rude, and I remarked to one of them, ‘The more evil the empire, the more paranoid the society’-which became a lyric in the song. It was just something I flipped off to them and then said, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ It wasn’t something I was consciously thinking.”

After completing the lyrics to “Carry the Stone,” Trudell brought them to his Bad Dog guitarist, Mark Shark. “We had a general discussion of musical texture, then he took the lyrics and came back with the music recorded,” Trudell says. “But every song I’ve ever written always starts with the words, because I want the music to be the musical extension of the feelings of the words and not the words being the emotional extension of the feeling of the music.”

The album’s title track reflects both the name of his band and “hard times,” Trudell notes-“you know, ‘No meat, down to the bone.’ The average human being in America is going through some sort of hard times-physical, emotional, psychological. Everybody’s carrying a bit of bone days in them.”

Once again, with “Bone Days,” Trudell took the lyrics to Shark. “They’re also about the great search for truth,” he says, “so I didn’t want the music to just have a depressed or defeated feeling, but if nothing else, that resigned feeling that has to be dealt with.”

But that was all Trudell told Shark. “I gave no further direction,” he says, “because everybody interprets things differently with their own perception, and I want poetry to pull out of them their own feelings. And I want it to come from them, because in a way it’s almost like a mixing of natural energy-my feelings and the musicians’ feelings-and I like that better than being in a situation where I micro-manage every aspect of the songwriting process. If you’re going to collaborate, collaborate. Otherwise, quit wasting your damn time.”

Bone Days also harks back to Trudell’s earliest songwriting efforts, as the words to album tracks “Ever Get the Blues” and “Nothing in Her Eyes” were written in 1980. “I always try to go back somewhere for the time frame of the first couple of years when I started writing.”

A Vietnam vet who was chairman of the radical American Indian Movement in the ’70s, Trudell began writing after his wife, three children, and mother-in-law perished in a fire of unknown origin in 1979. The same year, he met Jackson Browne, who helped him record Tribal Voice with Quiltman. He then hooked up with the late Kiowa guitarist/songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, and the two collaborated on Trudell’s acclaimed album AKA Grafitti Man, which he rerecorded, with Browne producing, for Rykodisc in 1992.

“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form-Native American music-and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” Trudell recalls. “Then I wanted to put it with the newest musical form-electric guitar-and I met Jesse Ed Davis, and he was the only one who knew what I was talking about.”

Trudell recorded two more albums with Davis before his death in 1988. “Everybody was going to be incorporated into the next album, but Jesse died and Mark picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on,” Trudell says. “Then Quiltman came in [again], and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.

“Because the whole point is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one art form to mimic the other,” Trudell continues, “so our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”

Trudell laughs. “In my mind, at least, that’s how it plays,” he says. “But I don’t know about the rest of the world.”