Western Paintings Color Cary Morin’s Musical Point of View
Cary Morin (photo by Grayson R. Reed)
Sitting on a couch in his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, Cary Morin holds up a small copper bust to the camera with both hands. It’s of a man, wearing a hat and looking serious and faraway at some wide, pastoral landscape.
“It’s Charlie,” Morin says, meaning the famed Western artist Charles Marion Russell. Then he says that the bust is actually a coin bank. “The Central Bank of Montana in Great Falls used to give these out if you opened an account,” Morin says.
Charlie Russell has been a guiding figure in Cary Morin’s life for as long as he can remember. “Growing up, his work was everywhere: in our house, in businesses, on the walls of our families’ homes,” he says. (He even graduated from Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls, Russell’s hometown.) Now, one of Russell’s paintings adorns the cover of Morin’s latest album, Innocent Allies, out Friday. The record is a collection of 12 original songs and two covers inspired by the life and artwork of Charlie Russell. It’s Morin’s first album since 2020’s Dockside Saints.
Cary Morin is a roots and “Native Americana” artist who’s been performing music since 1983. Morin’s work has won multiple Indigenous Music Awards and an Independent Music Award, and a live performance of his song “Jug in the Water” was named one of NPR Music’s Best Live Sessions of 2020. His reputation as a musician is built on his intricate and unique Piedmont-inspired guitar fingerpicking and his soulful voice that delivers lyrics largely drawn from his life growing up in Great Falls.
If you’ve never heard Morin play before, take the advice of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter David Bromberg: “Try to remember that it’s only one guitar.”
A River of Ideas
Morin, a Crow tribal member with Assiniboine Sioux and Black ancestry, comes from a family of Native American ranchers and military veterans. His parents both worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs before his father joined the Air Force, eventually settling in Montana. He learned about rock and roll and roots music from his siblings’ record collections and first began to play the guitar at 12 years old. Since the ’80s, Morin has been active in the Colorado music scene, playing in bands like The Atoll and the Pura Fé Trio before eventually writing and recording solo material, beginning with 2012’s Sing It Louder.
Remarkably, Innocent Allies marks Morin’s 10th album in 12 years. But he says he still wishes he could do more. “I’m not good at splitting up my time. I wish I could do more, but since we’re kind of a two-person team here at the house, there’s just a lot of other things to be done. I’m not real good at separating these tasks. I got to pick one thing and kind of stick to it.”
For the last few years, he’s been considering doing an entire album exploring the scenes and characters found in Charlie Russell’s artwork. He’s always kept his parents’ Charlie Russell books with him in the RV while he and his wife and musical partner Celeste Di Iorio toured the country. “I actually just brought them in for good last week,” he says. “I think we don’t need them on the road anymore.”
While Russell’s artwork is all over Morin and Di Iorio’s home, it took a visit with friends near Bond, Colorado, during a break on tour to compel him write the first song for the album: “Big Sky Sun Goes Down.”
“I just had the idea to start doing this album and I had the books with me on tour. There was this platform that somebody had built years and years ago overlooking the Colorado River on a bluff,” Morin says. “There’s nobody around and I just sat there and looked at the river and I started thinking about being home in Montana when I was a kid doing the same thing on the Missouri River. And then, boy, the songs just started to come. I think I wrote three songs that day.”
Scenes From Memory
Written and recorded over the last year and a half and mixed by Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, Innocent Allies is the first of Morin’s albums to be self-recorded entirely in his home studio. Morin played all the guitars and pedal steel on the record and sang along with Di Iorio.
Most of the songs on Innocent Allies are tied to particular paintings, and therefore tied directly to Morin’s personal family history. He says that when he looks at Russell’s paintings like When the Land Belonged to God or In the Enemy’s Country, he remembers exploring the landscape outside his father’s house near Ulm, Montana. “If you look at those paintings, my dad’s house would be right about dead center of all of them. Across the street were wheat fields forever and ever and ever. But you could look off and see Square Butte off to the northwest, which is really prominent in many of Russell’s paintings,” Morin says. “And then across the other direction was the Missouri River. So if I walked across the interstate and stood on a hill over there, kind of in between our house and the river, and looked off to the northwest, it looked like I was looking into a Charlie Russell painting.”
A print of Russell’s painting Indian Hunters Return always hung in his grandfather Robert Yellowtail’s living room. Morin wrote a song of the same name with his son Elias Nye during a holiday break from touring in 2022.
“Him and I and the dogs were hanging out in the RV, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m in the middle of writing this album, and if I wrote down a line and you wrote down a line, maybe we could piece together a song,’” Morin says. “So I showed him the painting and I said, ‘What we want to do is we want to try and figure out what happened before this moment and what happened after this moment.’ So we just made up this story on either end of the painting.”
While Morin’s signature guitar playing shows up in most songs throughout the record, it’s nowhere more apparent than on “Bullhead Lodge” and his stunning arrangement of the traditional bluegrass tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” He wrote the former while sitting in his studio while a slideshow of Russell’s paintings filled his computer screen, and he was inspired to record the latter after hearing a version by the famous Montana band Mission Mountain Wood Band when he was growing up.
Morin has spent the last month at home practicing the songs of Innocent Allies in preparation to tour in support of the album. He’s been figuring out how best to present Russell’s artwork on stage with the music and working out arrangements to perform the songs as a duo with Di Iorio. He knows that it all will finally make sense once they are actually out there, on the road, driving together with their two dogs in the RV, working on their harmonies. “I think where that stuff really gets ironed out is when we’re on tour,” he says. “If we’re out for a month or two and we play a bunch of shows night after night, the songs just seem to get a little tighter. We really prefer getting out of town and driving around and playing in different rooms all the time.”
Through the process of creating Innocent Allies, Morin has been able to use Charlie Russell’s paintings as a musical and lyrical ekphrasis to access parts of his own story. It’s that rare, earnest passion project that allows both the subject and its interpreter to flourish, and one that has taken Morin a long time to get just the way that he wants.
“It was a huge undertaking, and whenever I start a thing that I know is going to be a project that needs to be completed and not just a song or two, it’s really hard to get going on it. And once you get going on it, then it’s really hard to finish it,” Morin says. “I’m always a little nervous about putting it out in front of people and I just hope that they like it as much as I liked making it.”