The latest offering from Fort Collins-based singer-songwriter Cary Morin was inspired by paintings from his Montana childhood of an American West that was wild, beautiful, and populated by his Indigenous ancestors.
“This land is talking to me,” he sings in “Big Sky Goes Down,” the warm and sweeping opening track on his rich new folk-blues album Innocent Allies. “Sounds become familiar, yet they fade from memory. Nothing is ordinary when the big sky sun goes down.”
Each song on his new full-length LP, slated for a planned release this fall, was written by Morin as a sort of partner to a series of paintings by Charlie Russell that were ubiquitous in the Big Sky Country of Morin’s youth. The works were featured in magazines in big Eastern cities to show what was going on in the mystical and mythical West. Russell’s art, for better or worse, inspired many white people to move to the so-called “frontier.”
“He ended up hating that, because he wanted Montana to stay exactly like it was,” Morin says. “He hated the fact that people came and cut it up and plowed it under and, in his eyes, ruined what was already perfect.”
Morin, a Crow tribal member with Assiniboine Sioux and Black heritage, was born in Billings and grew up surrounded by Russell’s paintings in Great Falls, where the painter kept a home studio until his death in 1926. He even went to Charlie Russell High School.
“I didn’t think much about it at the time, how we were growing up in a place where we were completely surrounded by his work,” Morin says. “All of our parents had his prints or sculptures. It was literally everywhere — all around town, the businesses. The state capitol has the most gigantic mural that he ever made, in the chambers.”
A few years ago, Morin was thinking about writing and recording an album inspired by Russell’s artwork, and the slowed-down pace of the pandemic turned out to be the perfect time.
“I was trying to think, ‘How can I use … everything that I have at my disposal at home?’ That was the time when we were all at home trying to figure out, ‘What am I going to do?’ and ‘When is this going to end?’ We had no idea. There was no expiration date,” he says. “I thought, ‘I know all these paintings from when I was a child.’ My dad had all these books — Charlie Russell books.”
‘He painted my childhood playground’
Morin’s son dropped his grandfather’s books off for Morin, who pored through them like he did as a kid. His Native American background made identifying with the paintings easy and special, then and now.
“It’s almost like we’re in the paintings. He painted what turned out to be where I grew up, and [where] I rode horses — in the middle of nowhere. I would ride to no place in particular for hours, and just go out in the fields and just wander around. He painted my childhood playground, essentially,” he says. “I looked at a lot of those paintings and I tried to write the backstory to that moment that the painting depicts and what might have happened afterwards. I did that 13 times or something.”
That “13 times or something” resulted in Innocent Allies, his ninth record — the title of which refers to horses. Morin’s guitar playing is famously gorgeous, soulful and intricate, matched with a depth of songwriting that takes listeners on an easygoing, poignant and affecting road trip through the Montana of Charlie Russell’s time.
Morin has been in Fort Collins for many years and now tours the United States incessantly with his wife and musical collaborator, Celeste, after traveling the world as a sideman for singer-songwriter and storyteller Pura Fé. He says he’s “trying to create a narrative” for the release of Innocent Allies, exploring the possibility of packaging the record with extensive liner notes and perhaps even reproductions of Russell’s paintings.
As that unfolds, he and Celeste will be on the road — Wyoming, Nebraska, California, Montana and beyond — listening to what the land has to say.
“The relationship between me and the land includes everywhere I’ve been, all the way from New Mexico up to Canada along the Rocky Mountains … and the Black Hills and that area, too,” Morin says. “It’s all had a huge influence on what I do, and the songs I’ve written and the guitar styles I’ve tried to pursue. It’s all rolled up in this kind of weird, long history of keeping all those things in mind while trying to drive 90 miles an hour with a coffee and a cigarette.”
ON THE BILL: Cary Morin. 8 p.m. Friday, July 14, Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, 303 Main St., Lyons. Free