Sunshone Still's "Pallet of Buffalo Robes (Widower's Blues)" | Song of the Week | Indy Week
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Sunshone Still's "Pallet of Buffalo Robes (Widower's Blues)" 

On new material, American history and learning from the past

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This track is the third "chapter" of a sprawling 17-song historically based opus about Kit Carson and the United States' attempt to repatriate the Navajo Indians. A richly hued ballad shaded in somber resilience to reflect the widow's blues, the track opens with Carson's description of his Arapaho wife's final moments and her tribe's death rites. The bass and drums finally join a parched tenor aching over a lonely guitar strum.

Carson notes that "his suffering was not in view," but it's clearly in bloom: After watching her funeral pyre, Carson acknowledges, "Your body will never be mine." The music pauses before winding away with the repeated refrain of "Widower's blues." The organ offers a touch of resolution over an aching backbeat and crying guitar swells. Finally, the harmonica leads the song out like a dead man walking.

We talked to Sunshone Still singer/songwriter Chris Smith while he was driving to Charlotte from his home in Columbia, S.C.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did Ten Cent American Novels come together?

CHRIS SMITH: I was listening to an NPR program called On Point, and the author of Blood & Thunder was the guest. I though it was an interesting topic. The book was about Kit Carson and the Navajo Indians, and how those worlds intersected. At the time, I wrote down a couple things—Kit Carson, Singing Grass, and James K. Polk. Singing Grass was Kit Carson's first wife, and I thought that would make for an interesting song.

Maybe a month or two went by and I decided to pick up the book, and pretty quickly after getting into the book a little bit, I decided this was something that was pretty rich and offered a lot of material. Because when I first started thinking about and working on doing a new CD, I felt like I was retreading a lot of the same old stuff that everyone else is doing. Once I decided to go about it, to approach this subject, I wound up really kind of doing an outline, almost as if it was a book report, or college. I wound up using three other sources for it, too. It took about 3 months to research and do all the songwriting. And then another four months to do the actual recording.

Had you ever considered doing anything of this scope before?

No, I hadn't. I think what kind of got me interested was around that time I was listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens and had pulled out my old Pink Floyd The Wall record, and had picked up in the last few years Willie Nelson's Redheaded Stranger. It was really ambitious, especially considering it was just my second record. But I felt like I didn't have anything to lose. I shut myself off for 3 months and had no social life and just figured the best way to do it was to submerge myself in it.

Did the parallels between Manifest Destiny and our current foreign policy have appeal to you?

Absolutely. It was genocide that occurred at the outset of our formation. The only way we were able to move west and inhabit this land was by extinguishing a people and marginalizing them. You see what's going on in the world today, and you feel like we haven't learned from our own mistakes.

The first album was more of a bedroom recording: How much of a transition was it to do these full arrangements featuring horns and strings sometimes?

We kind of took a standard approach just doing basic tracking of the record. Laying down drums and bass, and then just layering on the additional tracks, particularly the string arrangements and the horn arrangements. I have to give a lot of credit to Austin musician—I used to live in Austin—and a good friend of mine, David Chenu. He worked on the last record, and he… and I just worked over the phone. Probably talked three or four times, sending files back and forth to each other, and really created some of these arrangements electronically, without being in the same room with each other.

Tell me about "Pallet of Buffalo Robes (Widower's Blues)."

Kit Carson was married three times. his first wife died right after giving birth to his second child. And she was an Arapaho Indian. A lot of the mountain men in the west would take Indian wives for a couple of reasons. They would know the mountains and the territory, as well as how to survive out in the elements. The other reason was to help them navigate in and out of the various Indian tribes they were going to encounter.

But Kit Carson, when he married Singing Grass, it seemed more than a marriage of convenience. He really loved her, according to some of the biographies that have been written. She wound up dying shortly after childbirth. For the Arapaho, a lot of times the husband would live with her tribe. So he lived with the Arapaho, and they didn't understand his form of grief versus theirs. Theirs was very open and almost violent. They would potentially cleave a finger, or pull shanks of hair out of their scalp. Really do bodily injury to themselves. They would see him, and his was more internal.

The song title is reprised later...

Yeah, it's called "Doctor, Compadre, Adios (A Pallet of Buffalo Robes)." When Singing grass died, she died on a pallet of buffalo robes, and, ironically, when Carson died he was lying on a pallet of buffalo robes. In his last days, he had a chance to reflect on his life, because the doctor that was attending to him was reading a biography of Kit Carson to him. He was illiterate, so the doctor was reading his story back to him. He had an unusual chance to reflect back on his life. He had a lot of drugs going through his system, but the last words he spoke were to his doctor. He had a burst of energy and yelled out, "Doctor, compadre, adios" and that's it, lights out.

But the album doesn't end there.

No, within days of when he died, the Navajo Indians were negotiating a return to their native lands. So I wanted to contrast those two things that were happening in parallel. He was the reason the Navajo were moved to a reservation because he was in charge of the scorched earth method that forced them to take the long walk into their reservation. This reservation was still an experimental process and General Sherman helped them negotiate a return to their original land—a reduced amount of land—right as Carson was dying. In the last few years of his life, he did come full circle and realize that policy was a horrific mark on the Navajos and something had to be done to remedy the situation, and was a mediator in some treaties for the Ute tribe.

Sunshone Still plays Open Eye Café Friday, March 28, at 8 p.m. Shannon O'Connor opens.

  • On new material, American history and learning from the past

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