Culture

A Country Star from the First Nations


Honestly, who doesn’t perform karaoke fantasizing that, minutes after you polish off the crescendo in “Stairway to Heaven,” a music manager will e-mail you a huge contract and a strategy for launching your career? Well, sometimes it really does happen. In 2003, Shane Yellowbird (1979-2022), then a fine-arts major at Red Deer College, in Alberta, Canada, had just finished a turn at a karaoke bar in Edmonton, when someone in the audience who had a connection to a connection in the record business made a call. In short order, Louis O’Reilly, an artists’ manager who has guided many Canadian country singers to success, headed to Edmonton to hear Yellowbird sing again. “He was a natural,” O’Reilly, who ended up managing Yellowbird’s career for ten years, said recently. “He had the right look, the right voice. It was country; that was his vibe.”

Yellowbird, who was a member of the Maskwacis Cree Nation (his Cree name is Mekwan Onimîheto), grew up in Maskwacis, a hamlet not far from Edmonton. His parents competed on the rodeo circuit. Yellowbird was good at everything he tried, including riding and roping (certainly inspired by his parents); hockey (a predictable Canadian pursuit); and, less predictably, drawing, which he especially loved. As it happens, though, he was an accidental singer. A speech therapist, working to help him with a stutter that he had had since childhood, suggested he try singing his sentences, and he found that he could make it through entire songs without a stumble. He also found that he had a silky, supple voice and a love of music—in particular, up-tempo pop-country ballads, in the spirit of Garth Brooks and George Strait. His musical talent did have precedent. His grandfather Norman, a rancher who was the chief elder of the Samson Cree Nation, was a well-known hand-drum singer. Besides sharing a talent for performance, the Yellowbirds were a remarkably good-looking family, with dark eyes and huge dimples; Shane’s Uncle Ray once called the dimples “the Yellowbird gift.”

After connecting with O’Reilly, Yellowbird rose like a rocket in the Canadian country-music world. His first album, “Life Is Calling My Name,” released in 2006, won three citations at the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards (including Aboriginal Entertainer of the Year) and the Chevy Rising Star award, which came with a fifty-thousand-dollar pickup truck. (The prize seemed fitting, since the biggest hit from the album is titled “Pickup Truck”; it begins, “Me and my truck like to hit the streets / See just how many pretty girls we can meet.”) With his subsequent album, he racked up awards in Canada, where he was a regular on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. Breaking out in the United States was harder. His singles were played frequently on Native American radio stations, such as KBRW, in Barrow, Alaska, and KILI-FM, which serves the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud Reservations, in South Dakota. But he didn’t have much luck getting on mainstream American country radio. (According to O’Reilly, getting on American radio is “expensive.”) In 2009, though, Yellowbird achieved something that almost made up for it: he was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Founded in 1925, the Opry has been running longer than any other radio broadcast in American history, and it is the pinnacle of country-music recognition. Yellowbird became only the third Indigenous performer to appear on the show in the nearly hundred years of its existence. While in Nashville, he had a chance to meet the country-music star Mel Tillis, a regular at the Opry, who also had overcome a stutter. (Tillis’s autobiography is titled “Stutterin’ Boy.”) Not surprisingly, Tillis had inspired him. “His stutter was part of who he was,” Yellowbird told First Nations Drum Newspaper. “And people liked that about him.”

Yellowbird also had to manage epilepsy, with which he had been diagnosed as a child. It is what likely caused his death, in April, at just forty-two. In spite of, or maybe because of, his physical trials, he was remembered by family and other musicians as an exceptionally tenderhearted, humble guy. He and O’Reilly parted ways about ten years ago, but Yellowbird stayed in touch with him, and they spoke on the phone now and then. In fact, O’Reilly said, Yellowbird texted him the night before he died. O’Reilly called back, but they weren’t able to connect. O’Reilly doesn’t know what he was calling about, but said, “He probably just wanted to say hi. He was always such a nice guy.” ♦



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