See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | A Colorado Musician Sings of Rivers and Art

At this year’s Folk Alliance International Conference, Feb. 1-5 in Kansas City, Cary Morin will be presented as the organization’s artist-in-residence. (photo by Gretchen Troop Photography)

Cary Morin is a soft-spoken, multifaceted musician and songwriter who ranges from New Orleans-infused swamp rock to fleet-fingered blues and folk-style guitar. Pre-pandemic he toured and recorded with his band Ghost Dog, and as the music world emerged from quarantine, he and his wife and manager, Celeste Di Iorio Morin, downsized into the Cary Morin Duo. From their home base in Fort Collins, Colorado, they racked up thousands of miles of touring in 2022. Highlights included a date with Taj Mahal and an appearance on the Mountain Stage radio show.

I got turned on to Morin’s music several years ago at a Folk Alliance International (FAI) conference in Kansas City and have been following his accomplishments — blues awards for his disc “Cradle to the Grave” and others — ever since.

A few months ago, the Morins were back in Kansas City, lured by Folk Alliance to participate in a community service project. Their day involved a float on the Kaw River and the subsequent creation of a song and video on behalf of the Friends of the Kaw, a non-profit organization working to promote preservation and environmental improvement along the river. The video will be shown in early February at the Folk Alliance gathering at the Westin Crown Center hotel, and Morin will be presented as the organization’s artist-in-residence.

Over dinner with them after that river outing, I learned of another large-canvas musical project in the works. Let’s call it a concept album. Morin has turned a lifelong fascination with the Western artist Charles M. Russell into a suite of songs, tentatively titled “Montana: Songs for Charlie Russell.”

Morin’s family roots are geographically in Great Falls, Montana, and culturally in Assiniboine and Crow tribal life. With his mother and Air Force father — they both once worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs — Morin grew up surrounded by the 19th- and early 20th-century art works of Russell, who was intimately associated with Great Falls. The painter was an iconic chronicler of the “Old West,” which to many people translates as cowboys on the frontier. But Russell also was a significant and sympathetic portrayer of Native American lives and culture. In paintings such as “Trails Plowed Under,” he aimed to preserve Indigenous stories even as they faced cultural extinction.

“As a Montanan,” Morin has written, “knowing his work was the same as knowing the Montana mountains, rivers, and the big Montana sky.”

Morin admires Russell’s affinity for tribal culture, the way he painted the Montana terrain around the Missouri River, and especially how he depicted horses in motion, an essential aspect of Crow daily life.

“The way he could illustrate horses and other animals, in sculpture and painting, was really unique,” Morin said in a follow-up interview over Zoom. “And his treatment of landscape was phenomenal. He did a lot of those paintings from memory. He pretty much nailed it, and a lot of those were right around the house where I grew up.”

Gaylord Torrence, former curator of Native American art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, shares Morin’s high regard for Russell: “He lived what he painted,” Torrence told me.

Morin said he started the project by taking an armful of his parents’ books on Russell to a bluff overlooking the Colorado River. Looking at the paintings and “hearing the water rushing by” gave him the spark for “Big Sky Sun Going Down,” the disc’s first song.

Morin called on a lifetime of music absorption — from early piano lessons, from his grade-school entry into finger-picking ragtime guitar, and from the pop music he heard his parents play. As he got older, his eclectic tastes included the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and John Prine, whom he referred to as a songwriting mentor. One of Prine’s songs, “Killing the Blues,” makes its way onto this record as the only cover, according to preliminary recordings. It doesn’t exactly have a Russell connection, except in its existential mood. Still, Prine’s influence can also be heard in the lyrical cadence of Morin’s song “Wally and Keeoma.”

Morin recently spent time in the Alabama studio of Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, who mixed and would eventually master the 13 or so songs.

“Cary has created a body of work that goes far beyond what he set out to achieve,” Shoemaker told me by email. “I wasn’t aware of Charlie Russell’s work when Cary approached me about mixing this record. Through the songs, I was able to visualize these unseen paintings with uncanny clarity and feel the powerful emotions that would surely be inspired were I to see Mr. Russell’s paintings firsthand.”

Shoemaker was impressed by Morin’s intelligence, humility and humor, and added, “I think this record is a masterpiece worthy of its place among the great works of art it was created to honor.”

It’s not a stretch to see how the attraction of Montana sky and river translates to Morin’s song for Friends of the Kaw. In it, he said, he imagined the river communicating to a modern-day audience. “I wrote a song from the point of view of the river, the talking Kaw River,” Morin said. “If you’re having a visit with the river, the river can tell you what’s it’s seen over the last couple of centuries, and the difference between then and now.”

The collaboration connects with the Folk Alliance conference theme of “Facing the Future: Sustainability and Folk Music,” said Marisa Kolka, an FAI spokesperson. “The goal of the project,” she said, “is to elevate the work that Friends of the Kaw are doing to clean and protect this vital ecosystem through music.”

In Cary Morin, the Kaw has found a sensitive and thoroughly engaging musical friend.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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