When he hits the road this fall, Marty Stuart will take a few minutes to tell the story of Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, his daring concept album about the Lakota Sioux, released 10 years ago this October. It’s a decidedly under-the-radar release, and no doubt some fans who have never heard the album will arch their eyebrows when Stuart lights into the title track. But the project holds a special place in the singer-songwriter’s catalog — and stands as one of the best overlooked records of the past decade.
In an industry that often sidesteps political controversy in favor of shopworn sentiments set in the beds of pick-up trucks, Badlands delivers caustic observations on the U.S. government’s attempted obliteration of Lakota culture in the 19th century and the hopelessness that plagues the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where many Lakota people live.
Scan a list of the top country hits from 2005 — like Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol,” Gretchen Wilson’s “All Jacked Up” and Neal McCoy’s “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On” — and it’s easy to understand the uniqueness of Badlands. Like Paisley and company, Stuart has recorded his share of party and drinking songs over the years — “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” and “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” (both with Travis Tritt) among them — but in 2005 he attempted to draw Native American issues back into the national dialogue.
Back then, country music’s closest visible connection to native peoples was the concerts its artists played at Indian-controlled casinos. But “Casino,” a sobering track on Badlands, calls out those gaming halls and the empty salvation they offer Native Americans: “They built a casino out under the stars/With neon lights blinking on tired rusty cars/Card sharks take my money, whiskey puts me in jail/An oasis of misery, I know it so well.”
Stuart reimagined Johnny Cash‘s obscure “Big Foot” (the only cover on Badlands) to indict the Seventh Cavalry’s attack on the Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890, but in “Broken Promised Land” — with its phantasmagorical instrumental prelude — he unleashes his own venom at President Bill Clinton, a modern great white father, who arrived in Pine Ridge in 1999 with retreaded solutions to the reservation’s problems. “He brought with him from Washington/A bag filled with dreams and cake/To spread among the poor/In the poorest county in the whole United States,” sings Stuart.
“I can’t help but get angry,” Stuart tells Rolling Stone Country. “If you and I were to get in our cars and drive out there we would find 14 people living in a house trailer, people without money for medicine and a lot of that kind of discouragement. It’s not glamorous up there. Our original people always wind up at the end of the line.”
Despite the album’s almost certain commercial failure, Stuart intrepidly moved forward with Badlands‘ release.