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Gary Small

Click here to visit the Gary Small Band website

Gary Small is an accomplished guitarist and vocalist, raised in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming now residing in Portland, Oregon. Small is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe whose reservation resides in remote Southeast Montana to the east of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, (Remember the story of General Custer? The Cheyenne were the home team.). Small takes great pride in his heritage and talks of his roots proudly and with confidence. Like renowned guitarists, Carlos Santana and B.B.King, Small's guitar is the forefront to one of the most incredible percussion sections in the area. One need only look behind the wall of percussion to see the likes of former 12-year Santana drummer, Graham Lear, or how about former Joe Cocker conguero, Bobby Torres. Small's band is always loaded with heavy weight musicians and the sound definitely reflects it.
Few guitarists attempt the sultry guitar ballads of Carlos Santana yet Small displays the same emotion and drama of his more infamous mentor whether it be a Santana classic or one his own well-composed pieces. His roots rock and reggae material is thoroughly seeped in Bob Marley with Carlos sitting in on guitar. A Portlander is hard pressed to find room in any venue where Small's veteran musicians perform. A recent weekend at Portland's premier blues club, the Candlelight Lounge, was no exception for this incredibly solid group led by this long black-haired Indian man.

Small has recently been appearing on the concert stage with other Native American performers such as, Rita Coolidge (Walela), Indigenous, Native Roots, and Keith Secola. Small will likely garner a nomination for the upcoming Native American Music Awards Show for his 2000 blues release "Cheyenne Blue Revisited."

"People ask me, why did I wait so long to do a Native American CD. It's because it feels right now. Not because of the 'I am going to find my native roots' thing. I have always known who I am and where I come from, make no mistake about that. But there are other factors: I wanted to play with great musicians and now I can do that. As a Native person I realize more fully what it means to be part of an Indian tribe. I look at things deeper now, I am not apt to say that this is right and this is no good. I have empathy and a better sense of understanding and commitment to music and to Indian people. It feels good now, so now is the time."

Interview With Gary Small (6/21/01)

Forum: How long have you been playing music? 

Gary: I started out at about 4 or 5 on the "drums" by taking a bunch of small plastic waste paper baskets and configured a drum set using pencils for sticks. I also had a toy xylophone and my first performance was the song "Ain't She Sweet" of which I received a standing ovation by my mom. I thank the Bugs Bunny Show for teaching me that song and I still regard that as one of my best performances.

Although I was a macho baseball player I voluntarily took up the violin at about age 10. One of the music teachers came in and demonstrated the instruments and I was amazed at the vibrato crying sound. At the same time I was watching B.B King on the Tonite Show and was amazed with his vibrato. Through violin I also learned to play viola and Bass Violin. That got me into the bass guitar at age 12. I was very fornunate that my town had a little music program.

Unfortunately I soon became another Jack Bruce on bass, so It was good that I switched to guitar at 16. It is also easier for me to sing and play guitar versus singing and playing bass. I have been at it ever since.

Forum: As a Native American, have you found it more difficult to get your
musical concepts across to the industry in general?

Gary: It goes way beyond that. Let me try to enlighten you on the topic of being "Native American." Non-Indians have a odd concept of who and what Native Americans really are. There are all kinds of Indians and we all have various degrees of blood-line, mine being Northern Cheyenne and Lakota. Your "Indian-ness" has more to do with how you were brought up and if you are part of the Indian community or culture, not whether you are a full-blood or half breed, from this tribe or that, and all that racial crap. 

Being Indian in this day and age brings odd comments, especially if you don't look like the guy off of the old Indian-head nickel. Comments like "How much Indian are you? Like I am a pedigree cocker spaniel at a dog show. Can you imagine if you were to approach a African American person in this country with "how African are you?" I often throw it right back at them, "...well judging by your questions I bet you are of a high degree of Non-Indian aren't you?"

I have always known my Indian identity and heritage through my father, he is an amazing man who has had an amazing life. The majority of my family live on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and currently my cousin Jeri Girl is the Tribal President. I didn't just come out of the closet in my newly found Indian identity. I am a far cry from being a traditional Indian person but I learn through other Indians who are my elders who can teach me things. All I need to do is shutup and listen with an open mind and heart. That is one thing you have to learn at an early age.

Its almost hip to be Indian now. In the 60's and 70's you didn't talk about it like we are doing now. At the present time, I wished I had a Indian-head nickel for every person who has told me "My great great grandmother was Cherokee (and often times a Princess), but our (cocker spaniel pedigree) papers burned up in the fire, and my grandmother would never admit we were Indian." It is always the same story, it has become a cult classic. Its always the great grandmother and its always Cherokee even though there are 500 plus tribes in the US alone. 

So I write songs about what it is for me, in this day and age, to be of Indian heritage and walking the earth now, as we know it. This concept is very new to the music industry. Think about what we have had so far. That god awful song by Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Cherokee People" or whatever it was called and Cher doing "Half Breed". This is garbage and has nothing to do with how Indians feel or what we are. 

We live in a nation where people think that being Indian is a "Profession" for crying out loud. We have the Village People: A Cop, A Biker, A Construction Worker and an Indian? We have the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins? Why don't people figure out how foolish that sounds. If we suddenly had a team called the Boston White Guys wouldn't that make you scratch your head? Dressing up your child in paint and feathers and sending him out on Halloween is no problem. One of these days some Indian kids are going to dress up in business suites and brief cases and yell "Trick or Treat" and I want to be there to record the expressions (LOL)!!!! So in short, we have our work cut out for us, we have stereotype walls so high that sometimes you can't see the top of it.

Forum: Can you describe your music to the Forum members?

Gary: Well lets take what I've described earlier; the difficulty of being an Indian today. How do we overcome these stereotypes and barriers? I say that one way is to play music that breaks down all barriers. Music that transcends all borders to where we don't see race and color. So I am influenced by other musicians who do this. 

I give a lot of thought to the lyrics, they are usually abstract and subtle for the most part. I don't like to take the "We're a bunch of pissed off Indians" approach too often, I am a pretty happy guy for the most part. I prefer to test one's intellect.

Music wise, I am drawn to drums so I always have at least two percussionist at all times. Due to my early childhood experience with Native American music and the Native drum beats, I also love blues, rock, reggae and Latin beats. I still have a lot to learn but the sound of the drums is everything for me.

My approach to the guitar is to be as melodic and vocal as I can and use drama to express the song at hand. I am very fond of Carlos Santana's playing because he does this so well. I do not want to be a guitar hero or techno player. I don't need to play the Mixo-Penta-Egyptian scale over a blues progression just to impress someone nor do I have the desire to turn guitar playing into a sport by playing the most notes in the shortest amount of time. The guitar picks up what my vocal ability can't perform and vice versa.

Forum: Who and what are your influences?

Gary:  They are B.B. King, Bob Marley, Carlos Santana and Robbie Robertson. All minority musicians, but you don't think of them as a Black, a Jamaican, a Mexican and an Indian. Their music takes you far beyond that kind of ignorant thinking. I want to do take people to the place where we forget all about the problems and enjoy the beauty of being a human being if only for the length of a song. These artists do it, why can't I? If I don't succeed with my new "Wild Indians" CD, I will keep recording until I get it right.

Forum: How did you hook up with such a wonderful percussion section?

Gary: One of the reasons I moved to Portland was to be around good musicians especially good drummers and percussionists. There are very few in the wilds of Montana to say the least. I hooked up with a drummer and percussionist to start with and then I was introduced to our resident conga extroirdinaire, Bobby Torres. Bobby was with Joe Cocker during the "MadDogs and Englishmen" era and played the first Woodstock concert, and yes he is in the Woodstock video briefly. Bobby took a liking to me, I think, because I am really one of few bands here that allows the percussionist to be part of the spot light. Bobby is a fantastic musician and treats me like a little brother and I have all the respect in the world for him.

Bobby then tells me that former Santana Drummer, Graham Lear recently moved to town. My jaw dropped, because I specifically remember being in college and playing "Moonflowers" over and over, learning the chops and taking in the grooves. I said to myself, "I don't know why I am learning this because I will never play with a drummer that can handle it." My "never" scenario was transforming right before me. Bobby gives me the magic phone number for Graham. I was so scared that I postponed calling him for at least two weeks.

In the mean time I talked to this knothead in town who had played with Graham a time or two. Later I found out that this jerk was jealous because I was going to ask Graham to play with us. He says to me something like "oh he never will play with you and that Santana crap you play, he hates that music now and he said he never will play it again."

Bobby kept telling me "just call him" so I did. I was shaking and my voice was cracking and I thought I was going to throw up. Come to find out this guy is as nice as can be. I mailed him a tape of our more tricky stuff and told him the address of the gig. The conversation was coming to an end so I said "Graham we do play a good half dozen or so Santana covers, is that going to be a problem for you?" His reply was "great!!!, at least I know those songs". We have been best buds ever since and we have an ongoing 9-ball pool grudge tournament that continues to this day. Graham has taught me a lot about drums and percussion as well as the music business. 

We share Graham with Paul Anka so he can't do every gig. However, He has honed our alternate drummer Ward Griffiths and she is awesome too. She not only has a great knowledge of her instrument but she is in great physical shape to handle the gig. We often will play for 15 to 20 minutes non-stop and she can handle it. We've had some guys sub where I thought we were going to have to call 911 (LOL). We also have Caton Lyles, who is absolutely my favorite conga player. He also plays with the Portland Northwest African Dance Ballet. One of my highlights of the night is when I get to stop playing and watch Caton take his spots.

I hold percussionists in high regard and I respect their craft. When they solo I don't walk away and go talk to the girls. I get out of the way and I watch them and listen to them do their thing every night. I tell them they have done a fantastic job and how much I enjoy percussion. I think most guitarist don't take the time to learn anything about the drums, they just run around telling drummer jokes and impatiently wait for their next spotlight. I think guys like Graham and Bobby pick up on that and that is probably why my band is such a beacon for good percussionists.

Forum: What are your current plans musically?

Gary: I want to pursue my music from my Native perspective, I have my first full blown "Native Americana" CD coming out July 21st and it is called "Wild Indians". It is pretty much roots rock and reggae grooves along with Native beats, culture, and rhetoric in the forefront. I have other brothers and sisters in arms who have the same agenda as me. Hopefully we will all come up together in the music. These groups included Keith Secola, Native Roots, Jim Boyd and Indigenous just to name a few. I hope people go to see them and get enlightened about this country's Indigenous people.

Forum: What made you decide to begin using PRS instruments?

Gary:  I play mainly PRS guitars and Mesa amps because they are simply the best for what I do. If I can't produce my music on that equipment then the problem is with me, not my tools. I am really trying to get away from the abyss of guitar equipment. First of all it is my main reason not to practice. "I can't practice, they just got in the newest guizmo-tron at Guitar Center and my career will end if I don't get it (LOL)." 

My main guitar is a beautiful orange flame top Custom 22 that I would assume was made around 1998. The PRS line seems very consistent from guitar to guitar but this one just reaches my soul for some reason. I like the big powerful signal that comes out the guitar, I use sustain and harmonic overtones much in the same manner that Carlos does and you really have to work at that to make it musical. I can't even tell you what pickups are in it. I haven't touched a screw on it since I bought it in Albuquerque NM two years ago. I am sure the spirits in the Sandia mountains saw me with that guitar and bonded us together, but there I go talking Indian again (LOL)!!!