Terry Strongheart Band,
(Skull Island, 2001)

In an ideal world, the Terry Strongheart Band would be filling stadiums, headlining the halftime show at the Superbowl, and this album would already be triple platinum. This is not, however, an ideal world.

But this band is a damn near ideal band. With the combination of Strongheart's powerful lead vocals and brilliant songwriting, Timothy Truman's simultaneously blazing and cerebral lead guitar work, and strong support from Mike Diehm on guitars, Chip Ames on bass and Jeff Chambers on drums, this is a folk-rock band to be reckoned with. Strongheart is a Cherokee, and the songs are imbued with Native American concerns and dreams, but there is very little overtly traditional Native American music here. Only one of the eleven tracks on this debut album, "Drum Song," is truly indicative of that repertoire.

The rest of the songs range over the vast corpus of rock, and the band admits to using elements of San Francisco rock, British and American blues, folk and gospel, as well as southern country rock, and it's probably this influence that's heard most clearly. However, the Terry Strongheart Band has their very own distinctive sound, anchored by Strongheart's vocals.

That strong and high voice is heard to full effect in the first track, "Here Comes the Rain," buttressed by Truman's wailing guitar break and daughter Erin Strongheart's counterpoint vocals in the choruses. "$20 Bill" follows, a southern-style romp that impales one of America's supposed heroes with the lyrics: "Andrew Jackson, he's no hero of mine/He tried to kill my people back in 1839/Some people say that money can't kill/But have you seen the face on a twenty dollar bill?" It's funny and angry at once, and it rocks magnificently. One of the most moving songs on the CD is "Let Them Run," relating an incident in which Strongheart and his mother saw herds of buffalo running across the plains. Strongheart's impassioned, tremulous delivery is perfectly supported by the texture the band provides beneath him.

There are songs of tragedy here as well. "Finally Home" sensitively deals with suicide on the reservation, and "Hold On" is Strongheart's remembrance of a daughter who died in infancy. The lyrics adroitly manage to bring tears without a trace of hollow sentiment. "Seeker" is a strong, straight-ahead rocker which leads into "I've Been There," a song in sympathy with those who've never quite found what they sought. The sound is different on this one, with more echo and a Spanish tinge to the music. (This might be a good time to mention that this is also a great sounding album -- the lyrics are crystal clear, the balance and the instrumental blend superb.)

"Riverbird," a tribute to a Lenapi elder, has Strongheart singing harmonies with himself to stunning effect. It's followed by the title track, a song about the infamous and historic Trail of Tears. It's an unrelenting and powerful chronicle of this epic tragedy, and Truman's slide guitar wails in sympathy to the lyrics. "Drum Song" is a fun blend of rhythm and voices, and the album ends with "Heal the Nations," with the plea to "bring back all the dances and put down all the guns," a message made even more relevant by the happenings of the past year.

Tears is the finest new rock album I've heard this past year. In a world of prefabricated songs and singers designed to milk teenybopper purses, the Terry Strongheart Band is the real deal, a mature, tight and powerful band that says things worth saying. Along with the aforementioned influences, the tone of the Strongheart Band's songs reminds me of those of Stan Rogers, who utilized his Canadian heritage the same way that Strongheart builds on his Cherokee roots. I kept being reminded too of the politically conscious mid-'80s albums of Steve Van Zandt and his songs "Trail of Broken Treaties" and "Native American." Like those works, these songs are socio-political, but they are also songs of deep humanity. Strongheart never preaches or pontificates, but he tells the truth in ways you may not have thought of before, opening your eyes to the nightmares and dreams and hopes of those who first walked the American landscape.

And by the way, the music also kicks ass.

You might have trouble finding this one in the stores and online boutiques of corporate America, so drop an email to t.truman@verizon.net for ordering information. You won't be sorry.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 11 May 2002