Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Robin Hairston is a Native American harmonica player, vocalist and lyricist whose all-Native blues-rock band, Blue Mountain Tribe, has received recent recognition for their song Pray For Our Planet. The piece was written during the first wave of the pandemic in response to a request from Lakota spiritual leader, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, that native communities pray for healing.
Pairing a traditional (and rockin’) blues-rock sound with lyrics about Native and Indigenous experiences, Blue Mountain Tribe intertwines two fairly distinct cultural identities in interesting ways.
Robin was raised in a rural area and resides in the small California mountain town of Tehachapi today. Among anecdotes about growing up Chiricahua Apache and how his son Caleb defied rather bleak predictions about what his life might look like, read on for a story about how a deep friendship formed by the daily necessities of mountain life made Pray For Our Planet what it is today.
Caroline Carlson, Daily Yonder: I’d love to start with where you grew up. Are you from California originally? What were your first experiences of music and what led you to create the band Blue Mountain Tribe as it is today?
Robin Hairston: I was brought up in a rural community, a mountain area, called Tujunga, California. And the funny thing about it is, I was the only Native American. In elementary school, junior high school, and high school, all through my years it was predominantly a white rural community, and I was the only Native American in all the schools that I went to. I had the long hair and I was brought up Native American and in some ways it was hard to keep my culture because my father left when I was very young. But my mom raised us. She’s the one that taught me our heritage, our traditions—that’s Chiricahua Apache. I belong to the Chiricahua band of Apache.
Fast-forward and my mom was dying of cancer. I was 14 years old, and we were going into foster homes because we had nobody to take us. And on her deathbed, my mom pulled out her harmonica and said “Robin, I want to tell you something.” I said, “What?” And she said, “Here’s a harmonica, you’re going to be somebody special in life.” Those were her last words.
So I got the harmonica and I started practicing and playing it and everybody told me I was horrible. One day I went to a friend’s party and I took the harmonica out of my pocket, and I started playing. And one of the guys said, “Robin, you suck. You’re terrible. You’ll never amount to anything in music.” And here I have my mom dying and telling me to be somebody, and this guy right in front of everybody, telling me I’m terrible and that I’ll never amount to anything.
From then on I was determined to master this instrument. Because to be embarrassed like that, to be told that you’re no good, it ignited something in me. I spent hours and hours and hours in the bathroom hiding from people. (You never want to learn a harmonica in front of other people. It’s an irritating instrument when you’re just learning it.) I practiced and practiced and one day my band was playing at the Palomino in North Hollywood—my first real gig. After I was done playing, some guy came walking towards me, totally blitzed. He’s wearing a suit and his tie is hanging down, his shirt’s all messed up and he’s stumbling down the aisle. He said “Hey, man, you’re really good. My name is such-and-such and I’m from such-and-such organization and I want to sign you, can I get your number?” I gave it to him but I didn’t think much of it.
Two days later he calls me up and he goes, “Hey, Robin, I really want to apologize. I’m the CEO of Levi bluejeans and we want to do a major commercial for Levi’s and have you play harmonica on the soundtrack.” And I said “What?” And he goes, “Yeah, that was me. I’m sorry. I was drunk. But I want to work a deal with you. Will you be on this commercial?” And I did the Levi 501 Blues Commercial. And from that point on my music career just took off.
Now Caleb, my son, plays guitar and I started the band with him as my lead guitar player. One night Caleb, my wife and I were watching PBS concerts, and I saw this band come called XIT. These guys were all Native Americans, and they rock. They didn’t play the traditional flute and drum, and I fell in love with them. I said, “Caleb, they’re all Indians. Why don’t we follow in their footsteps? You know, play blues-rock, and have all Native Americans in the band.” And that’s what we did. We started auditioning Native Americans for drummer and bass and playing stuff. People started loving it. XIT was way back in the day but we were new and folks couldn’t believe that Native Americans could play music like that.
We started writing originals, submitted our song to the Native American Music Awards and won best blues recording. Then, two years later, we won for best live performance so we’re actually two-time winners at the Native American Music Awards. Recently, the film for our song Pray For Our Planet has won awards at the INDO French International Film Festival, the Latino and Native American Film Festival, and the Las Vegas Film Festival.
DY: Let’s back up a minute to your son Caleb. Was he already playing guitar before you saw XIT on TV? I read on your website that he also produces a lot of Blue Mountain Tribe’s music. Where did he learn to play and produce?
RH: This is actually a really interesting and inspiring story. Caleb got diagnosed with autism at eight years old. The doctors told me he would never amount to anything, that he had to be medicated, that he would never live a meaningful life where you could hold a job or anything like that. I was totally devastated because I’ve always been a musician. I’ve always been a big tough Marine, a big, tough Indian, and suddenly I had a child with autism that I have to care for the rest of my life.
About five months after his diagnosis, my wife had an old guitar with something like two strings on it. We had just moved and the guitar was leaning against a wall. Caleb walked over, picked it up and started playing “Iron Man” by Ozzy Osborne on two strings. My wife said “Caleb, how did you learn to play guitar?” And he goes, “Well, I didn’t, I just heard it on the radio about 10 minutes ago.” She told me about it and I came over and started singing tones with my mouth and asking him to play them on guitar. I was doing jazz riffs out of my mouth and he was playing them verbatim. Exactly what came out of my mouth, he played.
So we bought him another guitar, this time with all the strings on it of course. And my wife got a guitar chart—a big ol’ poster with all the different keys on it. She told Caleb that if he memorized the whole chart in five months she’d give him $100. Two days later, he knocks on the door and he goes, “Hey, Paris, I got the chart memorized.” We couldn’t believe it, we sat him down with his back to the chart and asked him to play an A, a B, a b minor. And he did it. Right then I knew that I had something special.
Caleb didn’t live the life doctors predicted, based on his diagnosis. He had the gift of music, and so I took it and ran with it, made him the main guitar player in our band. He also writes, produces and does everything with me. People come from all over to hear him play, especially when they find out about his background. I’m really proud that he has become a world-known Native American musician, and that people love his music.
DY: In terms of Pray For Our Planet, it’s an incredible song, and there are lots of things to pray about right now: a global pandemic, the climate crisis, political divisions, racism and inequality. I’m wondering if you wrote that song with a particular challenge in mind? Or perhaps all of the challenges we’re facing?
RH: That’s a very good question. Because of what’s going on in our world right now, especially with this Covid virus, and all the violence that started—the deaths, and people looting and rioting… A man named Chief Arvol Looking Horse—he’s the most highly respected chief in the country, the keeper of the white buffalo, and when he says something, all Indians listen—sent us a memo to pray for our planet because of these things going on.
I got the memo, and I had this overwhelming sensation that I should write a song for Chief Arvol Looking Horse. So I went outside in bare feet and I started playing my drum and smudging myself and asking the creator for wisdom and knowledge on what to write, I had no idea. And all the words started coming into my head. Usually it takes musicians days and weeks and even months to write something, and I had the whole song written in one day. So I ran in the house and went to Caleb, and I said “Caleb, can you put music to the song, the lyrics?” He sat down and got it down in an incredible amount of time.
I have a friend who lives up in the mountains, his name is Michael Altman. And one day I went up there to get firewood with him and was talking about how we wrote this song, but we have no money for it. We don’t know what we’re going to do because it costs thousands of dollars to record in a studio. And he told me he wanted to take care of it and pay for everything. He put us in one of the best studios in Hollywood, it’s called Cherokee Studios, and the whole time I was wondering how this guy who lives like a hermit in the mountains is gonna afford to do this.
Well, we got it recorded and started getting it out by ear, telling people about it, putting it on our Facebook page or whatever. Then one day this big shot from New York calls me up. And he says, “So Robin. Where did you find Michael Altman?” I said, “What do you mean? He’s a guy that lives up in the mountains and wanted to pay for our studio time.” And he said, “Robin, you don’t know who Michael Altman is, do you?” He told me to google his name, and I did. Turns out, Michael Altman is the guy that wrote the theme song for the TV show M.A.S.H. I was in total awe—this person was so well-known! But the great thing about it is that he didn’t want me to know anything about him because our friendship was so precious. It was based on us just liking each other, not the money he had or who he was.
Now, since Pray For Our Planet came out, it’s gone viral. We’ve been on radio all over the country, we’ve won numerous awards, we’ve even been on Fox News. (The heck with them, I don’t care about their politics, I care about them promoting the band.) Right now it really feels like the sky’s the limit. And the main thing that I want to express is that the timing was perfect. The lyrics have to do with what’s going on today in our society: Covid, violence, the destruction of our sacred sites. A lot of our sacred sites are being decimated and taken, just for the love of money, and the minerals that are in them—and that’s another thing the song is about.
DY: I think you guys are fascinating in the way that you meld different styles and cultures. Your sound is really “hard-hitting blues-rock,” and your lyrics are about Native and Indigenous experiences. I’m curious about how you’ve been received both by Native people and also folks who might be hearing you more as a traditional rock band. Could you speak to that at all?
RH: The whole Native community loves Blue Mountain Tribe. I get literally hundreds of messages a day from Native Americans saying how much they love what we do, how much we stand for the cause of the people. And not only that, I get a lot of calls from non-natives saying the same thing: that they’re so proud to hear such a great Native American band. Native American musicians hardly get any respect or recognition in the music world. We have our own little things, but we don’t get very much attention. So now that this band has come up, non-natives are excited that they finally found a Native American band that can really rock. They can’t believe it, they love our music.
DY: I understand that you currently live in Tehachapi, California. Do folks in your community enjoy your music? Do you play gigs around town?
RH: Yes, we’re from Tehachapi. It’s a rural mountain community in central California. We’re an hour each way from any main city, so it’s a beautiful rural place—people have horses, it’s just really kicked back.
Most of the work we do is not for us, we do a lot of charity work. Blue Mountain tribe is not about the money, we’re about helping the people—the people with disabilities, the veterans. (I’m a 20-year veteran, I served in the Marine Corps, and the Army.) So we do a lot of charity things. And it’s about helping our brothers, not just Native Americans, but anybody in need.
To keep up with the music, shows and projects of Blue Mountain Tribe, follow them on Facebook.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.