Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” is the fastest-rising country single on the pop charts since Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992, but not everyone is celebrating.
Two country radio stations in Minneapolis are refusing to play the song after complaints that some of the lyrics are offensive to Native Americans.
“People up here are really upset,” says WaBun-Inini, president of the Minneapolis-based National Coalition of Racism in Sports and the Media and a national representative for the American Indian Movement.
The coalition has also been active in the protests against the Atlanta Braves’ fans’ “tomahawk chop” gesture and the use of Native American characters for sports team mascots, such as the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.
“It’s cheap Hollywood music like the tomahawk-chop chant or the old Hamms beer song,” WaBun-Inini says of the McGraw hit. “They got by with that then, but they won’t now.”
The coalition is one of several Native American groups that has officially protested the song and called for radio stations to stop playing it.
“It was our most-requested song, but we’re not in the business to irritate people,” says Bob Wood, program director of Minneapolis’ WBOB-FM, which stopped airing the song this week at the request of WaBun-Inini, a Chippewa who is also known as Vernon Bellecourt.
“When Mr. Bellecourt sent us a letter nicely explaining his feelings about the song,” Wood continues, “we decided to take it off the air.”
At Orange County country station KIK-FM (94.3), program director Craig Powers said it has been heavily requested by listeners. “It’s good pure pop country music, just like Brooks & Dunn. . . . It’s a novelty record not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a fun record that puts a smile on your face.”
But he predicts its popularity, and the controversy, will wane as quickly as they have risen.
“If someone from an Indian organization called me and was angry that we were playing it,” Powers said, “I’d be glad to sit down with them. But by that time, the record will be over with.”
McGraw, a Louisiana native who lives in Nashville, is a bit flustered by all the fuss.
“You’re concerned any time somebody doesn’t like something you do, but you’re never going to please everybody,” says McGraw, 26. “A lot of times a song or something like the ‘tomahawk chop’ isn’t the real issue, but a means to an ends (for the protesters), a way to be heard.”
The single, written by Tommy Barnes and Gene Simmons, was released in early February and has climbed rapidly up both the country and pop charts, last week moving from No. 28 to No. 19 on the Billboard pop chart. It is featured on McGraw’s second album, “Not a Moment Too Soon,” released this week by Curb Records.
The song, ostensibly a light-hearted character study, utilizes a laundry list of media-created stereotypes about Native Americans and the kind of pseudo-tribal beat and melodies associated with old movie Westerns. It contains such lines as “You can find me in my wigwam/I’ll be beating on my tom-tom,” and also incorporates the chorus of “Indian Reservation,” a 1971 pop hit written by John D. Loudermilk and recorded by Paul Revere & the Raiders (that song’s subtitle, ironically, is “The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”).
McGraw met with protesters at a recent Tulsa concert but declined their request that he stop performing the song.
Program directors at Los Angeles country station KZLA-FM and Orange County’s KIK-FM say that they have not received any calls or letters but that they would be sensitive to any objections.
John Brown, vice president of promotion for Curb Records in Nashville, says that even among Native Americans opinions are split on the song. While he’s been receptive to protest letters from WaBun-Inini and from Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee, McGraw has also received a letter of support from Gerard Parker, vice chief of the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“It depends on who you’re speaking with,” Brown says. “And it’s a pretty minimal amount of complaints versus the Native Americans we know who are attending Tim’s shows and buying the record.”
Asked if he would object to a song portraying Louisianians as ignorant rednecks, McGraw replied: “It happens in country music every day. I see the entertainment value in it. I understand (the Native Americans’) right to be upset, but my personality doesn’t go along with that.”
Activist WaBun-Inini, though, is further disturbed by that attitude.
“I have no doubt that the intentions were not to be offensive,” he says. “But if somebody told me something I did was offensive, I would apologize and not do it anymore. Now the ones who are doing the offending try to dictate to us what should be acceptable. That’s boorish arrogance.”