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Bard of the High Plains

Jack Gladstone sings the culture of the West



Jack Gladstone is a musical storyteller who inhabits a unique spot on the cultural borderlands between Native and mainstream America. His songs and stories reflect an Indian version of American history that is packaged and delivered in a form that is folk to the core, with strong doses of bluegrass, rock, and blues. His breathy, Gordon Lightfoot-esque voice and strong acoustic chord progressions create an impressive wave of sound that is both gentle and powerful. Although the content of Gladstone’s songs pull no punches, his message is positive, conciliatory and peaceful.

A true bard in every sense, Jack Gladstone is planted at the cutting edge of the transformation of western American culture, with a keen awareness of its history, and with a compelling vision of how it might be. The Bard is a vigilant keeper of the emerging culture of the great Northwest. This culture is one that mixes the ways and blood of the relative newcomers to North America with the deeply-rooted ways and blood of the natives. It is a culture of Indians wearing cowboy hats, of hippies weaving dream catchers, of environmentalists uniting to save the buffalo, of mixed-blood babies.

Gladstone’s treatment of past injustices toward Indians is neither finger-pointing nor preachy. It’s an honest look at how we got here. And, now that we’re all here together, his music is a plea that we share and respect this land in peace. He himself is a living example of the transformation of values that he advocates in his song, “When the Land Belonged to God,” which reminds us that “The purest gift is not of gold, but in art that awakens the soul.”

Buffalo Republic, Gladstone’s newest album, is his finest effort yet. The title is a play on the words “Banana Republic,” and the music is tight and lively and crisp as a pioneer’s pickle, and the content breaks new ground in his strumming of the “mystic chords of memory.” The stories brought to life on this album include two treatments of the Lewis and Clark expedition, providing needed balance to the rising tide of unreflective hero worship of these popular western icons. In “Traveling Magical Show” Gladstone sings, “In 1803, Jefferson bought what he thought was Napoleon’s to sell...But there were people whose homes were in the way.” Another song beautifully tells the sad story of Clark’s “body servant” York. The album also includes a song about Kut-oy-is (Blood Clot Boy), an “original western hero” of Blackfeet lore who slew evil chiefs and monsters, as well as “To Build a Fire,” based on a Jack London short story, and a song about the infamous Bozeman Trail, among others.

The Bard tirelessly brings his musical stories to the children of Montana, having taken his performances from school to school for more than 20 years now. What do the kids think of the man decked out with the feathers and Hudson Bay blankets? “Jack Gladstone is the hottest act in the Montana School circuit,” says my neighbor Susie, also a professional storyteller. She notes that the boys really perk up when they learn that the hunky Indian used to play football for the University of Washington, and sports a Rose Bowl Championship ring.

Gladstone also performs at Glacier National Park in the summer, where the astronaut Scott “Doc” Horowitz was so impressed by Gladstone’s work that he brought a copy of Gladstone’s Buffalo Cafe with him on the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Horowitz noted that this confirms that Gladstone’s music is “out of this world.” And it’s fitting that a copy of his CD has enjoyed the vast perspective afforded from orbit, because that’s how inclusive Jack Gladstone’s scope really is. Too bad he’s not a politician, too.

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