“Music doesn’t have any special meaning; it depends on what it’s attached to. For example, you think the Messiah is full of religious music, but a lot of the tunes in the Messiah, Handel took from bawdy Italian songs at the time. So the same music could go into an erotic context, a religious, a marital context, a pacific context. That’s why Gandhi and Hitler could dig the same music.” – Oliver Sacks
One of the things I’ve learned in my decade as a writer is that music truly is a universal language. People from all backgrounds have the capacity to enjoy the same things if they so choose, because music has the power to transcend cultural differences.
Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socio-economic status, etc. None of that shit matters when you’re sharing space with someone whose appreciation for the collective works of Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, and Kate Bush runs as deeply as your own.
That’s why the story of singer/songwriter/psychologist Darryl Tonemah resonates regardless of whether or not his audience has ever set foot on a reservation. His lived-in style is as real and emblematic of the shared entropy of the human experience as anything you’ll hear in 2019.
I checked in with Tonemah recently as he prepares to celebrate the release of his new album, “Red Dirt Remarks,” at Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on June 29. According to my calendar, there’s only one other high-profile gig in town that night, so perhaps our chat will make your choice a little easier.
MNOD: You’ve often referred to your music as ‘Native Americana.’ What does that term mean to you?
Tonemah: I have a very roots-based sound on the new record. There’s a lot of lap steel as well as a clean, country strat sound. The native component refers to my being a full-blooded Native American of Kiowa, Comanche, and Tuscarora heritage. I’ve always been interested by what’s around me and my life growing up on various reservations informed my songwriting in a big way. The stories evolved to write themselves, because my life and travels led me to this point. I’m influenced by a lot of early ’70s Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Pure Prairie League on this record, which is certainly evident when you listen to the songs.
MNOD: How did you first become interested in music?
Tonemah: I lived on the Standing Rock Reservation in the ’80s and we used to listen to a radio station called KFYR. I got a heavy dose of Springsteen, Bob Seger, and others, and, no matter how much we moved around, the music was always ingrained in me. Even when I didn’t have any friends yet, the music was always there for me. It’s still important today, because that sense of community never left.
MNOD: What role did your parents play in your musical direction?
Tonemah: My mother was the pianist for a church on the reservation, so she was the musical one. I played bass and trumpet with her at the church. The bass was actually the first instrument I picked up. My dad was the practical one in the family, so he always stressed being of service to people. The life of a musician can be a selfish existence, because it’s cool, fun, and you want people to cheer you. But giving back to others is also important to me, so I’ve always had both of those voices in my mind.
MNOD: Do you have a regular group of musicians that you play with or do you switch it up each time?
Tonemah: I do a lot of work down in Nashville, so there are certain musicians I’ve worked with that I was fortunate to get. I’ve used Vince Gill’s piano player, Tim McGraw’s bass player, and Van Morrison’s keyboard player. Van Morrison’s keyboard player happened to be available and he was willing to work for dog food money. When I play live, I like to know the players and it always helps to have a familiarity. There are a few players that I’ve come to know throughout the years in Niagara Falls and Buffalo that I enjoy playing with. I like my band to know the songs and be tight, but not too tight that there’s no room for spontaneity. I like to know that if I stop the groove during a song to say something that comes to me in the moment that they won’t miss a beat. I call it ‘Walking the Mile,’ because I want to move the song forward and have the band be prepared to jump back into it at the right time.
MNOD: How have you managed to balance a career in both music and psychology so successfully?
Tonemah: I wrote most of my first record while getting my PhD. It was full of songs about politics, but they were pretty dumb, because I didn’t really know that much about politics at the time. It wasn’t until I started writing about my own experiences that the music started to catch on. I went through a break-up and that’s what I started writing songs about. I’ve never had to choose one or the other, because there are a lot of phrases that resonate in both fields. I do a lot of teaching and I’ve found that establishing a connection with people in both music and my psychology work is fundamentally the same. One has really enhanced the other rather than being detrimental.
MNOD: What drew you to trauma work specifically?
Tonemah: Growing up on reservations, I knew a lot of kids that would get beaten up and go through things that nobody should have to go through. They were in tough situations. I was fortunate that my parents were always close, because I stayed engaged in the community and always had their support.
MNOD: The Sportsmen’s Tavern is known for being one of the preeminent Americana venues in the country. Have you ever played there before?
Tonemah: I’ve never played there before, but I have done vocals and mixed a record at the Sportsmen’s Studio. The Sportsmen’s Tavern is commonly rated the Number 1 venue for Americana music in the world and the crowds really know their stuff. You have to bring your “A” game when you play there.
Darryl Tonemah plays the Sportsmen’s Tavern on June 29 as part of the “Red Dirt Remarks” CD release party.