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 Native American country. Dozens of bands vie for shows on the circuit each week, reflecting how one of the largest US tribes 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 has 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 DJs on radio stations such as 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 constitutes 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 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 including 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.
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.
“To put it simply, we’re the original cowboys,” said Travis Friday, 40, the leader of Stateline. “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 DJ 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.
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 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.”