SPOKANE, Wash. – Creative ideas thunder through Jim Boyd’s mind faster than a herd of wild Cayuse ponies sprinting across an open prairie.
Since launching his independent music career in the early ’90s, the busy Lakes Band songwriter and performer from the Colville Indian Reservation has captured the best of those inspirations in a collection of nine albums and contributions to five film soundtracks. His talents have been recognized with four Native American Music Awards; his most recent album, “Them Old Guitars,” received nominations in four categories this year, including Artist of the Year, Record
of the Year, Best Pop/Rock Recording and Songwriter of the Year.
“I’ve got so many ideas and projects and just keep plugging away until one takes off, and I go with that,” Boyd said, sitting among his wares in a small retail store he recently opened in Spokane’s Garland neighborhood.
It’s where he sells his music compact discs and a new line of sportswear called Rez Ball. The hats, sleeveless T-shirts, sweats, jackets and sports bags are adorned with a logo Boyd designed with a backwards “Z.”
The design reflects his innate panache and a willingness to buck the status quo, two characteristics that propelled the songwriter from tiny Inchelium, in eastern Washington, to spotlights from Seattle to Switzerland. During the course of his career as an independent writer, musician, producer and owner of the Thunderwolf record label, he and fellow musicians in Rez Bound, The Jim Boyd Band and Kyo-T have performed at venues from Bumbershoot, a music and arts festival in Seattle, to Mardi Gras, including Honor the Earth benefits with Bonnie Raitt and the Indigo Girls. In the French Alps, he draws people from across Europe to fill a 500-seat theatre. Boyd’s music even gets radio time in Israel and Japan, but he is surprised at their choices.
“They’re off-the-wall songs of mine,” he said. “Like in Israel, it’s ‘Indian Boy Country Song.’”
All the activity gets hectic at times; and last year, Boyd, who just turned 50, decided to take a break. His idea of slowing down included opening the store and developing the Rez Ball clothing line.
“Now I’m going back to where I want to produce a bunch more music,” he said. “I’ve got enough recorded to put out several albums.”
He’ll explore some new sounds: a touch of blues, some horns, perhaps a gospel choir and orchestra.
Many of Boyd’s previous pieces reflect his sojourns on the Colville reservation and surrounding border towns.
“Earlier in my years I didn’t give a crap if I lived or died,” he said. “I drank heavily, but I transitioned. I started a process of working on myself, figuring it out. Working on my own issues.”
The result is a tapestry of contemporary Native ballads woven with warmth, anger, love, disaster and hope, where Boyd firmly stands his ground without apology, yet full of grace. He is often accompanied by drummer Alfonso Kolb, San Luiseno, and Marty Meisner on bass.
His fascination with rhythm and melody was sparked as a toddler, playing with plastic musical toys and drums made from empty oatmeal boxes. Then he started sneaking his brother’s guitar out from under the bed and taught himself to play.
Boyd said the first composition he put to music was a silly country tune about Apple computers called “My Apple has a Memory Much Better Than Mine.”
Early on, he started Greywolf, a cover band that played around local reservations for years.
“Greywolf started playing a lot of songs that were top 40, and we played them until we were a classic rock band,” he said.
His first big break came when Tom Bee of XIT, who was partying in Inchelium, invited him to perform with the band.
During the Greywolf days, he became a certified recording engineer and completed degrees in music and small business management. He also got serious about songwriting, but the vulnerability of performing his heartfelt compositions in public was daunting.
Then Sherman Alexie asked him to compose some pieces for the film, “Smoke Signals.”
Boyd recorded the songs at his reservation studio, accompanying himself on keyboard, guitar, cedar flute and drums. He was in survival mode, putting together what he could with what he had, and considered the finished product a demo. Alexie surprised him by using the original recordings on the soundtrack.
“After that, I started paying a lot more attention to the music,” Boyd said.
He tends to every aspect of his business, including promotion.
“Marketing is creative, too,” he said. “It’s another avenue for me to find niches here and there to promote my music, even in Spokane, where audiences don’t rush to support unknown artists.”
And he doesn’t expect mainstream producers to beat a path to his door.
“Let’s face it: Native music, movies and everything else is not mainstream, so the major publishers, or whatever media you’re working on, aren’t going to accept you,” he said.
Nevertheless, the release “Going to the Stick Games,” 2005 NAMMY Record of the Year, got a surprising amount of airplay despite its traditional sound. Perhaps it fulfilled people’s expectations about what they think a Native artist ought to be doing, Boyd mused.
“One of the obstacles is, people want you to play a flute,” he said. “You have to fight that too, as a Native performer.”
Owning his own label affords him the freedom to be innovative. He started Thunderwolf with little more than a wealth of inspiration and $32 for a business license. Nowadays, he’s a household world among progressive audiences in the region.
A new release usually sees him booking promotional tours and traveling the country, but after completing “Them Old Guitars” last June, he stayed home to pursue the Rez Ball line and to spend time with family. He has several CDs planned, and some film collaborations.
“Right now I’m just focused on getting these projects done, that’s my priority,” Boyd said.