By: Jeb Branin
Part of the time my wife was growing up she lived on the edge of a Navajo Indian reservation. She loves that country and the people who call it home. It is a reverence she has instilled in our children. I can think of little that would be more appropriate considering the fact my wife, and therefore our children, have full blooded Navajo ancestors. It is a source of pride with my children that they have a connection in some small way to such a magnificent people with such a rich history. Sadly, however, part of that history is the attempted genocide of Native Americans by a foolish, vain, and white United States government. The tragic devastation of Indian culture and the forced relocation of the tribes in North America is one of the blackest stains on this nation's past.
Greg T. Walker and Jakson Spires are two people for whom their partial Native American heritage is also a source of great pride. They have demonstrated that pride consistently over a 30 year rock n' roll career that has seen them tour the world's largest stadiums as well as seediest bars. As founding members in 1969 of BLACKFOOT, Greg and Jakson were part of the very beginnings of the first great "Southern Rock" explosion. A rock 'n' roll movement that merged the down home vigor of banjo pickin', mouth organ, front porch blues and British Invasion rock n' roll. Southern rock, or "Southern Boogie" as it is also known, was one of America's most identifiable and homegrown musical movements. Greg T. on bass and Jakson on drums were joined by band frontman Rickey Medlocke and guitarist Charlie Hargrett for a string of gold and platinum albums in the late seventies and early eightiess. Rickey and Greg were even members of the definitive southern band LYNYRD SKYNYRD for a short while and recorded the "First... and Last" album with them.
Nineteen Eighty Six saw the demise of the original Blackfoot. Thereafter Rickey kept the name BLACKFOOT for a series of solo records and has most recently rejoined LYNYRD SKYNYRD. Today Charlie has a small club band that he enjoys and Greg and Jakson have once again joined together to form NDN, a band wherein they can express their passion for their Native American culture as well as the rock 'n roll music that has shaped their lives. I spent some time talking to Greg to get some insight into the past, present, and future of these legendary artists.
IMWT: So let me ask about the connection between NDN and Native American culture. Ever since you began your careers you have held a certain reverence for Indian culture as even indicated in the title of the first BLACKFOOT record "No Reservations" (1975).
Greg: I give most of the credit to Jakson for that. He was fortunate enough that his blood grandmother lived with he and his brother until she died when we were ten or eleven.... Nine or ten... something like that... anyway, she was the sweetest lady and she was full blooded Cherokee. Jakson was adopted but his blood grandmother arranged the adoption of Jakson and his real brother and lived with them. So he made me very aware of Indian culture from the start and we've know each other since we were four. In elementary school one time I had to do a book report and I did it on Indians and I was talking to my dad about it and that was the first time that he told me that I had some Indian heritage. That got the ball rolling for me but I was just a kid then and it was just kinda neat. As I got older I got more interested in it and questioned more and then I began to talk to my granddaddy a lot. My dad obviously didn't know a lot because he hadn't been told much so I talked to his daddy. It was years later when I left home that it dawned on me why we hadn't talked about it much. It was shameful and there was a lot of pain and heartache and sorrow from way back. My mother's family has Creek blood and there are members of that family who even today flat out deny it. Thanks to Jakson I began to take a hard look at my blood. Without Jakson I might never have done more than said, "Yes, I've got some Indian blood" but now I'm proud of it. I've studied it. I've read everything I can about it. Then I got into the spirituality of it and it all sunk in. When I put BLACKFOOT together in 1969 we went by the name Hammer but about six months into the band's career another band on the west coast by the name of Hammer put an album out so we had to change the name and Jakson came up with the name BLACKFOOT. The reason he chose that name was because nobody in the band had any BLACKFOOT blood in them. BLACKFOOT is a Sioux tribe... Now that isn't Blackfeet... that is a Canadian tribe... it is BLACKFOOT. Anyway, Cherokee didn't sound bold. Shawnee or Creek didn't sound bold to us but BLACKFOOT sounded bold and powerful.
IMWT: The concept of the "Sign of the Four" is an aspect of Native American spirituality that you associate with NDN. I assume that is something that you want to promote through the band?
Greg: Oh absolutely. We don't want to be a totally Indian band like Red Bone, who were a great band that had one smash hit called "Come and Get Your Love " that I still hear every once in awhile. They were all full bloods and wore headdresses on stage and bells around their calves. It was wonderful, it was fantastic. They were from Washington state. They were a real Indian band. Now with us we are real proud of who we are and what we are and we are real secure in that and we are to the point where we will let our music speak for itself. We don't want to bastardize it or commercialize it, we are just proud of it. And we hope to bring it out to others and make a point in our music. We want to just say something by setting an example. We don't try and be a full blooded band. That is something that is important to us. That is why we spell the name NDN because we are not trying to take anything away from the full blooded Indians. We want that to be perfectly clear. We have nothing but respect for them. We just want to try and say something positive. Like we don't want to say things about the alcoholism that is rampant on the reservations. That is a sad fact of life but we don't want to dwell on it. We are just paying homage to who we are and we want to be positive because all the negative things have been done to death. Being negative... that is not who we are.
IMWT: What is your opinion on the Leonard Peltier case?
Greg: Let me tell you something... (pauses and thinks) That is one of the saddest things that has ever happened. I want you to print this, okay? That is a shining example of how the U.S. Government comes down on someone because they have got to have a scapegoat. They put him in prison for a crime that I don't think he committed. But someone had to pay the price to satisfy the public. If you ever get a chance to read the book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" it tells you exactly what the FBI and CIA can do and the power they have. That should be required reading in schools. I think Leonard defended where he was at and I think he had a right to do that and I think it is a clear case of the FBI being in the wrong place at the wrong time and they screwed up. It cost them their lives and Leonard got it all put on him. I cannot believe that not one president has given him a pardon and a worldwide apology because that man is in prison for something he did not do. He is a great man and I respect him.
IMWT: It reminds me of the Mumia Abu'Jamal case.
Greg: Exactly. (Greg goes on to explain more of his feelings about the case but does so "off the record")
IMWT: On a lighter note, I have to get your take on the latest BLACKFOOT news which is a brand new King Biscuit Flower hour CD release of a live BLACKFOOT show from the days you were still in the band.
Greg: Overall I think that it is wonderful that someone would come back.... that recording is from 1983.... so fifteen years later and someone wants to release a CD on us. I think it is an incredible honor and compliment. I haven't heard that particular broadcast so it will be nice to here it. We did several of those broadcasts over the years but we were always packed up and 500 miles down the road before they were broadcast (laughs). In a nutshell I'm real honored. It is quite humbling in a sense and really I can't wait to here it myself. I'm really excited.
IMWT: I read where Charlie Hargrett said he would like to see a reunion of the original BLACKFOOT but I know there are some hard feelings between Rickey and you and Rickey and Jakson so how do you feel about a reunion?
Greg: I can speak for both Jakson and I on that one because we've talked a lot about it. If Rickey or someone representing Rickey contacted us and presented that opportunity to do some sort of "Blackfoot Reunion" then I am very receptive to it. I think it would be a wonderful thing. I think I would be great to play again because that was BLACKFOOT the original. That would be fantastic. And it wouldn't be us saying "Okay, everyone else is getting together again so let's do it too and make a lot of money. Let's rape the public" It would be us just going out, playing and kickin' some natural ass. Because we would rehearse so well. That is something that we always did. We rehearsed at soundcheck. We would pick the songs apart and put them back together. I think we would sound better now than we did then because we have a few more years under our belts and during these years apart we've played with other people and have gained more knowledge and versatility from playing with these people. Playing with others is a real asset if you think about it. Again, in a nutshell I would be very interested in it and so were Jakson and Charlie. Everyone has talked to everyone except Rickey. Charlie maintained a relationship with Rickey over the years and I don't know if they've talked about it but I would be real receptive to it. And we would sound great. We would sound inhuman I think. We'd just have to check our egos at the door and just get down to it and play.
IMWT: Rick owns the name BLACKFOOT, so would you want to reorganize the company or would you just see yourself as a "hired gun" as it were?
Greg: I would never do it as just a side player. That is just something I would never do. But I don't think it is possible to get the company back together. That isn't an option. I think it could all be done under some type of contract that protected each person individually so that it was an equal share type thing. Rickey owns the name now but we'd have to share things equally if we were to do this.
IMWT: Why do you think that the original BLACKFOOT has maintained such a rabid cult following even after all these years?
Greg: I have no idea and that isn't something that I would even try to decipher because that would be ungrateful in a way. I am just humbled by it and thankful for it. We broke up 12 years ago and people still remember us. Like with the new NDN project, our website is getting hits from all over the world from people who are searching the web for information on BLACKFOOT or Greg T. Walker or Jakson Spires. People are anxious for the NDN album to come out.and that is exciting. People are now talking about NDN and not just BLACKFOOT. But to answer your question I don't have any idea why we have such a following because we never became a household name or anything. Never like an AC/DC or anything. A lot of people today I talk to don't even remember the name BLACKFOOT just sometimes they remember like "Highway Song" or "Train, Train" and can sing a few lines. But in Europe it is different. Once someone there becomes a fan they are a fan for life. We still have a huge following in Europe and Japan.
IMWT: You obviously had great success in BLACKFOOT, but you paid your dues too.
Greg: Well there was a time in the early years where we moved the band to New Jersey and all lived in this one small house. We were really desperate. I can remember eating Cheerios with water because that was all we could afford. Being so poor is the main reason Rickey agreed to play with LYNYRD SKYNYRD and it is why I did it when they called me. After our success was over were hard years too. BLACKFOOT made a lot of money.... well, our manager made all the money. I ended up selling guitars to make ends meet. But I got a letter just the other day saying that in 1999 I could expect to start getting royalty checks from BLACKFOOT because I would no longer be in debt to our label.
IMWT: What prompted you and Jakson to finally get together in the studio again with a new band?
Greg: Even back years ago when we were at our peak and were doing really well Jakson and I were writing songs together and since Jakson and I wrote differently than Rickey and Jakson, we would say, "Wouldn't it be great to go out after the band breaks up and play these songs?" We knew BLACKFOOT wouldn't last forever and when we did finally break up in 1986 Jakson and I met together and wrote a little bit. Sometimes we would take a day and go into the studio and do just one song or maybe just the guitar and vocals for a song. So this is really the realization of a lifelong dream in a way because we have always been writing and writing. Then we got a chance to do a video with a friend of ours who won a Grammy for his videos. He called us up and said "I want to do a video with you guys." and next thing you know we are on a plane to Wisconsin in a blizzard in January (laughs). Then Jakson and I were able to get into the studio and do a bunch of songs. Then things were dormant for a while because of the distance between Jakson and I and the financial resources and such, but we kept on writing and were able to get together in Muscle Shoals which is ironically where it all began years ago. That is where we recorded the first BLACKFOOT album "No Reservations." Fortunately circumstances have worked out such that we have been able to work together off and on and we have been very fortunate and have been able to keep a promise we made to each other years ago to see this through.
IMWT: Can you end things by describing your approach to the music in NDN?
Greg: Well I'm not gonna say that it'll blow your skirts up but it doesn't sound like anybody else. That isn't to say it is better than anybody else, just different. It is quality music. It is very simple. There are not a lot of chord changes or lots of great licks or great musicianship. There are no Jeff Beck's in this band, it is just well done, quality music that is not as heavy on the whole as what BLACKFOOT used to do. We could still pull that off if we wanted but we're not eighteen anymore (laughs) and we're just not going to do that! (laughs).
For more info on NDN Please visit their website at http://www.4ndns.com/
Also check out Greg and Jakson's other band THE SOUTHERN ROCK ALL-STARS at http://www.southernrock.com/
To (re)discover BLACKFOOT visit: http://www.soft.net.uk/stevehoare/blakfoot.htm and http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Palms/1089/
For more info on Leonard Peltier's case please visit http://kafka.uvic.ca/~vipirg/SISIS/sov/alllpdc.html
For more Native American music: http://188.8.131.52/search/topic/music.html