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Navajo Country Music Pays Tribute to ‘Indian Cowboys’ and Outlaw Legends

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 pickup trucks.

Clad in Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, they danced under the dim lights to bands playing outlaw country classics by singers such as Waylon Jennings. Between songs, couples murmured sweet nothings to each other in English and Diné 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 United States 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 Native American tribes have long put their own stamp on country music, none have 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 here is the sheer size of the Navajo Nation, spreading over 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Diné, as many Navajo prefer to call themselves, number more than 330,000 on reservation lands and beyond.

Such numbers provide critical mass for a musical culture that reflects both life within the reservation and in surrounding “border towns.” Browse through the tribe’s enrolled members, and one finds names like Wynonna Begay (reminiscent of country singer Wynonna Judd) or Garth Yazzie (a nod to country star Garth Brooks.)

Diné-speaking D.J.s 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 Diné 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 Diné 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.

In their song “Grandpa’s Pickup Truck,” Stateline draws on the Diné word for grandfather, shicheii, for a wistful portrait of the back roads that crisscross the Navajo Nation:

“I was happy as a sinner going back to heaven,

Climbing in the front of my shicheii’s pickup truck,

With Cheetos and Shasta sitting in the middle,

Driving down the old reservation road.”

Kristina Jacobsen, a bilagáana (Anglo, in a rough translation) anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, said that Navajo country music is often intended to sound “tinny and imperfect,” emulating the gritty low-tech sound of bands from decades past.

“They’re singing about mama, trucks, ranching, nostalgia, things the Navajo happen to know a lot about,” said Ms. Jacobsen, who learned Diné and played with reservation bands while researching her book, “The Sound of Navajo Country.”

“But remember, this is dance music,” she said.

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.

The long arc of Diné history in the Southwest offers clues as to how this adaptive capacity was honed.

Some Diné creation stories suggest that their ancestors entered the world near Huérfano Mesa, a sacred site in northwestern New Mexico. But Diné scholars suggest that it was the merging of various indigenous groups in the Southwest that produced the Navajo people, with Diné Bizaad emerging centuries ago as a regional lingua franca.

Such accounts provide a more complex picture of Diné origins than commonly held assumptions that the Navajo are relative newcomers, thought to have arrived in the Southwest sometime between 1100 and 1500 as part of an Athabaskan migration that also included Apache tribes from what is now Canada.

Either way, Diné honed a capacity for adapting aspects of other cultures. After the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Diné took to herding churro sheep, the Iberian breed introduced by conquistadors well-suited for rugged Navajo lands.

With the horse, another animal introduced by the Spanish, the Navajo developed a ranching ethos long before Anglo cowboys arrived on the scene. Diné ropers, bareback riders and steer wrestlers are now competing in rodeos around the United States.

“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.”

Country is still far from being the only musical form thriving among the Navajo. Diné musicians nurture heavy metal, punk and rap scenes. In Farmington, the largest city in the Four Corners region, the D.J. at the club in the Brentwood Hotel plays hip-hop for a largely Navajo crowd.

Still, the real action is on Farmington’s outskirts at the Navajo-controlled Northern Edge Casino, where “rez bands,” as many Diné call country ensembles, perform on weekends.

“They keep the rhythm just right for people to dance,” said Vonn Nelson, 40, a grandmother from the outpost of Pueblo Pintado who drove to Farmington on a recent night to see Stateline.

Ms. Nelson said that country music was so present in her family’s life that her 2-year-old grandson, Mikey, was already learning the two-step. “We start them young,” she proudly added.

Lee Griffith, 22, is also from a rural part of the Navajo Nation but now lives in Farmington, where he cares for his mother. He said he had come to Stateline’s show to forget about a tragedy from just days earlier: His grandparents were killed in a car crash.

“This music gets me moving, singing, out of my myself,” said Mr. Griffith, a country music enthusiast who lists new stars like Easton Corbin and Luke Bryan among his favorite performers. “I didn’t want to dwell on things tonight. I just wanted to dance.”