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Native American roots bind melody, passion for local flautist

It’s not quite the story of Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s, but it’s still kinda neat.

“The flute came to me in an odd way,” recalled award-winning Native American flautist Steven Rushingwind. “About 14 years ago I was a painter, living in Joshua Tree, and every time I’d finish a painting I’d always play my flute. It kind of gave it a little blessing.”

A neighbor who was a record producer kept hearing this wonderful sound. He came over to the studio one afternoon. “He said, would you like to do an album? I said, ‘No, I used to be in a band, and I don’t want to do that again.’ But he talked me into it.”

The resulting record, Cloud Runner, was released in 2008, launching Mr. Rushingwind into a recording and touring career that is still going strong, with 11 albums under his belt, several awards and countless concert and festival appearances.

Mr. Rushingwind returned last week from the Native American Music Awards (the “Nammys”) in Salamanca in upstate New York where he was nominated for Artist of the Year.

“Being a finalist was a huge highlight for me,” he said. “Just being in such great company was a very proud moment.”

The winner was Shelley Morningsong, however, Mr. Rushingwind has been at the Nammys’ dais twice in recent years, winning best instrumental/new age albums for his collaborations with New Mexico guitarist Michael Mucklow on Among the Ancients in 2010 and again for Bridge in 2011.

Mr. Rushingwind’s latest record, Nordic Passage, was released last month. He writes primarily as a collaborator but noted that it is this collective process that helps create the abundance of material.

Sometimes he writes a melody, and then takes it to his band. He and the group then work the tune until it takes shape. The band members also write riffs and melody lines, and will sometimes work to extend and refine these pieces into songs, all the while being lead by Mr. Rushingwind’s flute.

“Basically I’m like the singer, and I’m using my flute as the voice,” he said.

On 2014’s Red Beaten Path, Mr. Rushingwind was urged to explore a new way to create. He improvised live in the studio, composing melodies to a “click track” (essentially a digital metronome, providing a tempo for the musician to play to). With the melody guides down on tape or more accurately on a computer hard drive, producer Harlan Steinberger composed “bed tracks” of drums, bass and percussion to complement Mr. Rushingwind’s melody lines.

“That was the first time I’d ever done that,” he recalled. “It was very unorthodox for me, but the album came out really well. I’m sure glad I did it. It was the best [recording] experience I’ve ever had.”

The record resonated with fans as well. It won best Native American album at Britain’s One World Music Radio Awards in 2015, was a finalist for best instrumental/new age album at the 2016 Nammys, was nominated for best instrumental album at 2015’s Indian Summer Music Awards and was a finalist for best Native album at Canada’s Aboriginal Music Awards, also in 2015.

Red Beaten Path is interesting in its array of textures. Mr. Rushingwind’s flute is front and center, but Mr. Steinberger’s production includes elements of hip-hop, trip-hop, R & B and jazz. It’s a chill-out record with some very deep grooves and interesting production.

His next album, Fuego, is set to be released next February and features longtime Gloria Estefan percussionist Nelson Rios. The album was written over one snowy weekend this past winter in Philadelphia. Fuego has a world music vibe, with Mr. Rios’ Latin influences slipping in.

“We had ideas before that, and when we got out [to Philadelphia] we put all those together and sequestered ourselves,” Mr. Rushingwind said of the writing sessions. “It was snowing that weekend, so we got some food and beer and got the whole album down how we wanted. It was like a big sketchbook.”

A few weeks later the group met in Los Angeles, got into a van and drove to San Francisco to record it over another weekend. “It’s pretty powerful stuff,” Mr. Rushingwind said of the upcoming record.

Recording, touring and being feted at awards shows are impressive accomplishments for anyone, especially for a Native American musician whose first record was made on a lark. But Mr. Rushingwind’s Native roots run deep. He is a descendant of the Cahuilla and Opata tribes. His grandmother was full-blooded Cahuilla, and his mother is Mexican. The Pomona-born Mr. Rushingwind, 56, is married to Susan Ruiz. He has three children, ages 35, 30 and 10, as well as a 9-year-old granddaughter and 5-year-old grandson. Ms. Ruiz travels with her husband, assisting with merchandise sales, photography for his website and logistics.

“It’s a family affair. Susan had a photography studio in Claremont during the ‘90s. Claremont’s my home town. I spent many years bugging Mr. Chase and Dorothy,” Mr. Rushingwind said of the founders of Claremont’s Folk Music Center. “That’s my home. I remember going to the Folk Music Center and hanging out with Mr. Chase in the ‘70s.”

Those curious about what Native American flute-driven music sounds like can sample Red Beaten Path on iTunes. His CDs are also available locally at Rhino Records and Buddhamouse Emporium.

Mr. Rushingwind will be playing an interesting outdoor venue this weekend at his old haunt Joshua Tree. He appears tonight and Saturday at the Desert Breeze Art and Music Fair at Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Center Theater. Concertgoers will be able to “see the art of the skies on giant screens as you enjoy the desert breeze.” Sounds fun. The JTAACT is at 2601 Sunfair Rd., Joshua Tree, 92252. Tickets are $5 at the door. More information is available at joshuatreetheater.com.

Additionally, Mr. Rushingwind will be a guest on David Fleming’s KVCaRts show on San Bernardino NPR affiliate KVCR 91.9 FM on October 12 and 16. Check out kvcrnews.org/arts for more info.

Mr. Rushingwind’s website is stevenrushingwindmusic.com.

—Mick Rhodes