JIM BOYD RIDES at the bow of a nearly empty ferry creeping across Lake Roosevelt, the snaking swath of slack water shaped by the Grand Coulee Dam. The town of Inchelium (Inch-e-lee-um) lies another half-mile across the lake and a three-mile drive west into the Colville Indian Reservation. The original town and several other old burgs rest underwater, victims of the dam.
There are two distinct sides to him, as well: passionate performer and painfully modest man. He's put out seven full-length CDs, one of which won the Native-American version of a Grammy, and plays in far-flung places like Switzerland and New Orleans. Last week, he opened for Joe Cocker at the Idaho resort Silver Mountain.
Yet, he never strays too far from home for too long. As the ferry chugs closer to the hamlet, he recalls how for most of his life he felt he had nothing to say, and still fights pangs of feeling like the "low-esteem boy from the rez."
On stage, as he will be at Bumbershoot on Labor Day with his latest band, Kyo-T, he draws attention with a smoky voice and unadorned songs. He sings about equality, justice, political freedom and manipulation, love and loss, Native-American issues and his own 12-year commitment to sobriety.
At 16, he was playing in a band at his aunt's bar. In his early 20s, he was a rock star, a member of XIT, a heavyweight Native-American band. He went on to become the front man for other popular bands, doing cover tunes and singing words he wasn't even listening to. Sometimes, he didn't even know the words. It didn't matter to him. Who could tell amid the din?
"I got so good at singing other people's songs that I'd actually sing just like them," he says. "So when I tried to find my own voice, it was hard, because I didn't really have one."
Ever since, Boyd's music has been self-penned and personal. Little Inchelium, in the heart of nowhere, finds itself in the heart of nearly all of it. On his album, "First Come, Last Served," he sings about how helpless he once felt in Inchelium:
Flowing river ... now a still lake
"WELL, THIS IS INCH-E-LEEE-UM," he announces with a grand flourish of irony.
He drives past the cafe-bar, post office and rec hall. He waves to his young niece as he passes the school playground and to every other motorist he passes. He points out a butte where horseback riders once a year charge down to enter Inchelium's fairgrounds. He shows several vacant lots where things used to be before logging went south.
Both his parents grew up in the area, but he was born on Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, where his father, a master sergeant, was serving at the time. When the Boyds weren't living on a military base, they were in Inchelium. From reservation to reservation. They settled in Inchelium for good once his father's career ended.
"It was really strange going back and forth," Boyd says. "It was hard to know where you fit in. When I was a military brat, you gotta get out and mow the lawn, gotta get your hair cut, it's all so structured. Then, you'd come back here and . . . well, totally different."
That's how Jim Boyd says it. Here's how he sings it:
"I've lived in two worlds while wanting to be free,
"Mom is such a strong woman," Boyd says. "She pretty much kept the family going. Almost all of us used to drink . . . to where we had problems. My dad, totally. He spent all his time back here playing pool in smoky rez bars. He never smoked but died (in 1992) of lung cancer. Mom never drank, and now I don't think any of us do."
A doting mother, she used to embarrass Boyd's brother by buttering his bread while his friends watched. Sure enough, when she sees us coming, she pulls food out of the freezer, just in case.
As a kid, he was a three-sport all-star, but music was what he cared about. He and his close childhood friend, Jerry Stensgar, became rock 'n' roll partners. They'd leave their instruments and amps set up in the school auditorium so they could play anytime, and would break in to practice or borrow the microphone. When Stensgar died of cancer this year, Boyd wrote him an elegy titled "Two Guitars."
Boyd quickly established himself as something of a prodigy and got a taste of the spotlight in junior high when his cousin talked him into performing a duet at a community contest. The big-talking cousin got stage fright and took off, leaving Boyd to perform solo, the cousin's mom accompanying him on piano.
Music was his future, anyway. Tom Bee, now owner and president of Sound of America Records, saw 23-year-old Boyd play and took him back to Albuquerque, N.M., home base for XIT. Suddenly, the boy from the rez was playing to big audiences, opening for Cheap Trick, riding limos and touring Europe.
After XIT disbanded, he played with other notable Native-American bands such as Winterhawk and Greywolf. He was living large and didn't notice anything was amiss because a cadre of fans always made sure he got home.
BOYD CAN SHARE few details about the night of his one-car accident in 1991. He remembers the bar and he remembers the tree, but nothing in between. He totaled the car yet was unhurt. He says he was lucky, not so much because he survived but because he got the message.
"I was ready to make the change. Five years earlier, it probably wouldn't have made much difference."
He was forced to attend court-ordered substance-abuse treatment, even though neither he nor his wife, Shelly, thought he had a problem. After three months of counseling, he came home and announced he was an alcoholic. He hasn't drunk since, and he went to school to become a counselor.
He and Kyo-T piano player Brad Greene perform a haunting duet that sounds like a good-love-gone-bad song. It's really a vow to stay sober:
I can't recall what I saw in you.
Soon after he got clean, he met Alexie at the Columbia Folk Festival in Spokane, where they both performed. They gravitated to each other, partly because they were the only two Native Americans performing there and partly because Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, was already a fan of Boyd's.
When Alexie was preparing his first movie, "Smoke Signals," he asked Boyd to write songs for it. Boyd was playing basketball at the treatment center's outdoor court when Alexie arrived to hear what he had done. Slipping the cassette into his car deck, Alexie heard the first song, "Father and Farther," the movie's central theme.
"It was perfect," Alexie says. The pair also collaborated on a related album, "Reservation Blues," and performed at bookstores, campuses and conferences. Alexie read his poetry and other writings while Boyd played. He could no longer hide behind the screech of an electric guitar. The more intimate the surroundings, the more exposed he was. He played acoustic and sang his own lyrics, which he considered first drafts. To his amazement, people listened.
"I never thought people would be interested in what I had to say," he says. "The only reason I started writing my own songs was for therapy, pretty much. Once I was done writing, that was it as far as I was concerned."
Watching Alexie, Boyd was inspired to write, rewrite and edit to get to the heart of what he wanted to say. He wrote a song about Alexie called "Story Man," and Alexie says Boyd and the image of the restless Indian rock star influenced him when he was writing the movie.
"Music is Jim's voice," Alexie says. "With his music, he is more courageous, more passionate, more extroverted. He is a gentleman, tender and funny in his private life, and brash and courageous on his public stage. I love them both."
Shelly calls the couple's 15-year marriage the best years of her life. She marvels at how quiet and observant he is.
"The phrase 'still waters run deep' was meant for Jim," she says. "He had been playing about 20 years before we got together, and he was playing this little thing for 'Reservation Blues.' He was so nervous that his voice began to crack on the first song. He told me in all that time the only words he had ever spoken (when not singing) on stage were 'check, check.' "
"WELCOME TO THUNDERWOLF PRODUCTIONS!"
Boyd wears a broad smile as he nears a house all by itself in a clearing. The windows are shuttered with paper, and edges of the roof are cracking and buckling. Until recently, this is where he recorded music, from Native American Music Award-winning "alterNatives" to songs for "Smoke Signals." Not long ago, he and his wife and 14-year-old son left Inchelium for Spokane, and he mainly records there.
Now, Thunderwolf headquarters is a lonely accidental museum of equipment and memorabilia he hasn't yet moved. Some remnants are still in place because he might move back. He can't decide. A desk still holds piles of papers, mementos fill a wall and display case, a bookcase holds recording and music books. Stains on the carpet of a side room are left over from when Stensgar ran a printing business there.
The signs of life are the squawks of starlings that have roosted in the space between roof and ceiling. It seems to fit Boyd's idiosyncratic career. He is a star in Native-American circles and has shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls and other famous names, but he is largely a secret in his own state.
Like an independent artist often does, he wears many hats, just recently turning recording duties over to the studio in Spokane. Inside this bare studio, he uses a laptop to check for e-mail and proofs an ad promoting a record-release concert.
He keeps contact with fans and sells stuff through his Web site, (www.thunderwolfrecords.com). Shelly has taken all but one of his album-cover photos, the last, "Live at the Met." A photography-class student of hers took that one.
So far, Boyd has given up a measure of fame for control. Sound of America's Bee offered him a place on the Native-American-owned company's label, but Boyd chose to stay independent.
"Jim has all the ingredients: He is a great singer-songwriter, but sometimes I think he underestimates how good he is," says Bee. "Maybe he wants to make it big; maybe he doesn't. You see that a lot with Native-American musicians. Maybe it's a rez thing."
With the release of his "Unity" album in 1993, Warner Brothers contacted him, expressing interest in representing him.
"They said, 'This is the best stuff we've heard in a long time.' Then it's six months later and we're still talking, and now they say, 'Can you do more of this? Or write something like that?' Already trying to change me. If that had been five years earlier, I probably would have jumped at it. I'm proud to be Native American, and I'll sometimes wear breast plates on stage, but only when I want to."
So, where does Boyd's music fit? He includes so many genres on each album that it is hard to get a bead on where it should be filed in the record store. Native-American folk? Native-American rock? Why Native-American anything?
Not all his songs deal with Native-American issues. On the same album, songs flit from folk to country, rock and blues. He sings a song in Reggae about "political manipulation." Like most artists, he tries to balance the commercial and artistic sides, struggling with how to promote and identify himself.
Where does he stop being a good Native-American singer-songwriter and become a good singer-songwriter?
His new band Kyo-T is named after the coyote, a trickster in Native-American lore. The idea is that they are sort of "sneaking ideas" out through their music.
One spring night he and Kyo-T played a benefit concert at Spokane's Metropolitan Performing Arts Center to raise money and awareness for the Medicine Wheel, a Native-American education project. Through the evening, he played traditional flute, harmonica and guitar, wailed blues and whispered folk.
He also shared what he called the "PO-litical" tunes, like one called "Bush Fires."
Well, I think the Bush has a plan to turn the whole world against us
BY EARLY AFTERNOON, Boyd has done all he needs to do in Inchelium. He's seen Mom, picked up mail at his post-office box, and caught up with old friends in a restaurant and bar called the Steem Uss Spaoos, (which means "What's in Your Heart"), smiling shyly as they retell oft-told stories of old high jinks.
The Columbian Princess drops him back at Gifford. He decides to drive to Spokane a different way, heading south down Highway 25 along the east side of the sprawling lake.
"A lot of my friends hardly ever come off the rez," he says. "Sometimes when you're there all the time, I guess you don't appreciate what you have. For me, every time I leave it I get a different perspective, totally different every time."
He chuckles as he recalls a non-Indian band member asking for the English version of a particular Native chant and laments he wasn't quick enough to make up some hooey. Inchelium shrinks with each mile, but the lake alongside puts him in a nostalgic mood.
Up the road at a place called Hidden Beach, Boyd and friends used to play a game called sticks and bones. Essentially, it's a gambling, guessing, drinking game. It would take hours to play, and the games often went into the early morning. Players had to make their guesses while opponents and onlookers tried to rattle them with fast chants like, "Hee-lo O yai yai yai . . ."
"Some nights we'd camp across the lake and could hear the singing. You knew they were partying . . . but hearing that singing coming across the water, well, it sounded traditional. It sounded magical."
In "Filtered Ways," on his "Unity" album, he sings about the game and music drifting across the water. It is another song of the two worlds it separates.
When I think about the lake it's sticks and bones til daybreak
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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