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Upstream into the mainstream

Shawn Michael Perry is on the move

CARSON CITY, Nev. - Singer/songwriter/actor Shawn Michael Perry is one ambitious man. As a recording artist, he's had the savvy to court the radio industry, successfully persuading to place cuts from his debut CD with his band, Shawn Michael Perry & Only the Brave, on America's pop, top 40, adult contemporary, college and country charts. He did his research, made his move and took a leap of faith.

''They hit on every one,'' Perry exulted. ''One song! I was like, wow!''

That single, ''Forever,'' competed against the likes of Gwen Stefani and Daughtry, and solidified Perry's quest for prominence on the charts, an achievement that followed a very concerted pursuit of America's airwaves. Retooling and re-tuning for the country charts, Perry adapted to his following there.

''A great song's a great song,'' figured Perry, explaining his take on the songwriting process. ''It's all equations. Sometimes it hits me like a ton of bricks and the whole song's right there, and I've got to scramble for pen and paper, the guitar or piano, and get my recorder going. Other times, it's a process, a puzzle-making type of thing where there's a little hook here or a guitar riff there. It'll just nag at you.''

Perry was born in San Diego to a Salish father and a Panamanian mother of Mayan ancestry. One of his earliest memories of performing was singing Christmas songs in kindergarten.

''I was hooked from day one,'' he said, referring to the sound of applause. ''What got me excited about music was 'The Flip Wilson Show,' and Michael Jackson used to come on there with the Jackson 5. I just thought that was it. As soon as I heard his voice and how people reacted to him, I just knew as a young child that that's exactly what I wanted to do.''

Perry sang in top 40 and country bands in Montana and Wyoming, but painful rejection from a critical naysayer in his past was the catalyst for wanting more.

''I won't name names, but a guitar player that I'd run with for a time pretty much told me I should stick to singing, because I couldn't play guitar, or write a song on the guitar. I didn't believe that, so I taught myself how to play. I'd play it upside-down, left-handed - not too many people did that. In Missoula, Mont., about the late '70s, I saw a left-handed guitar player named Eddie Clearwater. I saw him play, and said, 'Sir, how'd you do that?' He said, 'Son, you gotta get through it to get to it!' I'll never forget that lesson.''

Years went by, though, before he earnestly pursued the guitar, a vehicle that now allows him to both express himself as well as disseminate culturally-based musical messages. But Perry's early years in Montana's Flathead community didn't exactly affirm a positive sense of Indian identity.

''I remember as a kid, it wasn't very fun being Indian,'' he said. ''I had long hair; I was beat up all the time. There was major prejudice in Wyoming and Montana. But I always looked at people with a good heart, because I'm a Christian ... There's good people everywhere; I've always thought that - even though I've seen both sides of the fence ... So my first recollection of culture wasn't a good thing. My dad, in some ways, was ashamed of who he was and would downplay the fact that he was Indian so he could protect us, if that makes any sense. I say today, 'No more of that.' That's why I'm trying to put my music mainstream, so I can kick a door open for us and leave it open.''

Perry said he believes Natives need to be consistent in two vital arenas: cultural and creative.

''Based on the fact that we're the original storytellers of this country, that we weave tale and song together in such a beautiful way, I am baffled when I go to national conferences for radio and there's no representation there ... If we can't get a song on a national car commercial, in a show or on HBO, we're a day late and a dollar short. I don't mean to ruffle feathers but it's been, what, almost 40 years since 'Come and Get Your Love' with Redbone? Been way too long!''

To Perry's credit, his new single, ''Family,'' is climbing the charts.

''That particular song is universally themed,'' said Perry. ''Family - whether it's here or Iraq - is very important. Music is very influential. Song, telling the truth and getting into subject matter that some might not want to touch is necessary right now for us to survive. I'm not the guy that will tell the cultural tale, in a sense, but I am the product of all those cultural tales.''

As Perry - a single father and grandfather - continues to move upstream, his investment is paying off. He is currently creating new material for his second CD.

''The one thing is, I never panic,'' he asserted. ''I read Miles Davis' autobiography and was really impressed. He put his horn down for almost 11 years, but when he picked it up, he was still Miles Davis. I really look at my craft that way. I have proven - at least to myself, and [to] some of my peers - that I can hang, that I can be adequate, that I can produce.''

Moreover, Perry said he believes Native artists shouldn't put too much emphasis on the allure of awards - as ironic as that sounds for a man making a name for himself. To Native youth who hope to do the same, Perry offered encouragement.

''Dream, dream, dream,'' he said unhesitatingly. ''Never lose sight of being able to know that fulfilling your dream is probably going to fulfill someone else's as well.''

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