Looking back over the last year and a half, it’s safe to say we’ve all been through some dark stuff: A seemingly relentless global pandemic, social unrest and violence, financial upheaval and uncertainty – a veritible shopping list of doom and gloom.
But there’s still room for hope – just ask the members of the blues-rock band Blue Mountain Tribe, whose latest single, “Pray for our Planet,” is catching on not only with increasing airplay, but with music awards piling up and with film festival juries for the song and its accompanying music video as well.
While the band is based in Tehachapi, California, their message for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people isn’t restricted to geography.
The band is made up of Robin Hairston on vocals and harmonica (Chiricahua Apache); Caleb Hairston on lead guitar (Chiricahua Apache); Pat Mata on drums (Northern Band Chumash-Yokuts); and Jeff “Cooper Hawk” Cooper on bass (Cherokee). Having formed 15 years ago, the band is a two-time winner at the Native American Music Awards, Best Music Video at the 2021 Latino & Native American Film Festival, and is headed to the red carpet July 30 in Las Vegas to pick up an award from the Las Vegas Film Festival.
And it all came about because of a serendipitous meeting with producer Michael Altman (who, among other things, wrote the lyrics to the movie and television show “MASH”’s theme song, “Suicide is Painless.” His father, Robert Altman, was the film’s director).
Robin said the idea for the band as it is now came one day when he and his son, Caleb, were watching a Native American band on PBS.
“We started off as just a regular bar band, just playing the bar scene. About two years after that, we were watching a PBS concert and it was an all-Native American band called XIT, and they just totally put us in awe. They weren’t playing the traditional flute and the drum – they got up there and just rocked it,” he said. “I was just so amazed ... Caleb and I are Native American, and we’re just thrilled that Native Americans can get up there and do something like that.”
Robin said it took about a year to find enough musicians with Native American blood to get the band together. Robin and Caleb began writing songs about Native American history, culture, what they experienced, he said.
“We submitted one of our songs to the Native American Music Awards and we won. We won Best Blues Song (for “Children on the Rez”),” Robin said. “After that, then we won again for best live performance of a blues band.”
For more about Blue Mountain Tribe, visit bluemountaintribe.com.
And now “Pray for our Planet,” the inspiration for which, Robin said, came from a message from Chief Arvol Looking Horse asking for people to pray for the planet because of all the unrest that’s been happening. “I went out in the backyard and I was really inspired by his words to us and so I started to write a song about what he was talking about,” Robin said.
What helped put the song on the radar was the chance meeting between Robin and Michael Altman.
“Me and my friend are cutting the firewood and here comes this guy driving down the mountain on an ATV with a flowing beard wearing John Lennon glasses and a big smile on his face coming down the hill, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy? I love him!’ I just felt so close to him because he had a big smile on his face – he and I got to be friends,” Robin said.
The two got to talking about the band – Altman had seen them play in town, and when “Pray for our Planet” came up, Altman knew he could help get the song – and a video made, setting the guys up at the famed Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, and including his brother, Robert Reed Altman, who directed the video.
Altman said that he had heard Blue Mountain Tribe play in town before meeting Robin, and the timing – this all happened during the pandemic, so all projects were on hold – was perfect.
“I said from the beginning this is a spirit-guided project,” Altman said. “I don’t know how it happened; he doesn’t know how it happened. My brother doesn’t know how it happened. We went, ‘Hey, let’s just do this,’ and boom. I was able to finance the thing, and my brother was able to do the technical work for the most part. And it just happened.”
Next up: The band is working on its second album, and Robin said this one is going to be more bluesy.
And for all of us, he offers this advice: “Don’t give up hope. We’re under a lot of pressure with the violence that’s going on, the hatred, these diseases that are popping up. And just to keep on shining. Just keep on shining. Don’t let the dark overwhelm you; keep on shining, keep that light going because there’s hope.