Like many musicians, Randy McGinnis appreciates genres different from his own.
“I love all music,” says McGinnis. “I’m a music-holic, an addict. I like jazz, blues, classical, big band, rock. Not so much a metal fan. And I don’t even know where to put rap; I just don’t understand it.
“I like reggae, Caribbean music, country. I grew up listening to bluegrass - it was on one of the three radio stations that we got.
“We spent a lot of Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the porch - and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, brought to you by Martha White.”
None of that sounds too unusual for an East Tennessean - except that McGinnis grew up in a small town in southern Ohio. And instead of the Scots-Irish heritage claimed by many in the region, he was born a Cherokee of the Deer Clan.
McGinnis will bring his Native American flute music to the Clayton Center for the Arts on Thursday, July 21. The 7 p.m. concert, “Summer Sounds,” will be in the Lambert Recital Hall.
Tickets are $10, with proceeds benefiting the Maryville Arts Coalition. McGinnis, who lives in West Knox County but frequently performs in Blount County at venues such as the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and the Townsend Visitors Center, became a board member of MAC this year and is donating his concert to support the organization.
He hopes listeners will find his music educational as well as pleasurable.
“Most people, they’ve never heard it,” says McGinnis.
Aside from CDs that might be playing in New Age shops “or when you get a massage,” he says, Native American flute music doesn’t get much exposure. What’s represented as Native American music in movies and television shows is not the real deal.
“Those go along really well with scores,” McGinnis says with a chuckle. “I don’t think you’ll ever hear a true cultural Native American playing any of their own spiritual songs in a movie.”
Not that all Native songs have spiritual meaning.
“They have songs for picking fruit or welcoming the hunters back,” he says.
“I have a song I play all the time about the Little People. You’ve probably had them all over your house. Did you ever walk in the house, lay your car keys down on the table, just lay them right there, go in the other room, come right back and they’re gone? You go look all over the house for them, and you come back, and they’re there.
“The Little People, they’re tricksters. It’s a very playful, joyful song about them. They’re little mischievous guys, so it’s an upbeat song. And they’re the keepers of the music.”
McGinnis learned the lighter and darker sides of his heritage growing up. His ancestors moved to Lewis County, Ky., in 1833, shortly before the U.S. government started “collecting Cherokees and taking them to forts and blockhouses and things like that,” he says.
By the time Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homes and moved to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears in 1838, McGinnis’ forebears were relatively safe in northern Kentucky. They stayed there until the Great Depression led them across the river into Ohio in search of work.
“It was close to Portsmouth, where all the jobs were,” says McGinnis. “Most of the people went to work in the steel mills, the shoe factory; there was a bunch of industry there, so there were jobs for people.”
He estimates that there still are about 400 Cherokees in his old community, though many families are now “mixed.”
“My dad’s grandfather came from Ireland,” McGinnis says. “He was a coal miner, and he came to Pittsburgh to be a coal miner, and there weren’t any jobs. So he heard down in Lewis County where all our people were that they were hiring limestone miners. So he came there, got a job, met my dad’s grandmother, married her.”
McGinnis has played the flute all his life, though he has been performing professionally only a few years. He grew up hearing his grandmother and others in the community sing Native American songs, and he learned to read music when he played tenor sax in high school.
“I was in the concert band but not the marching band because I played football,” says McGinnis, who also once was in a big band that played swing music.
Music was never a career choice. After high school, he tried college a couple of times and also worked several different jobs, including sheriff’s deputy. He might have been somewhat influenced by his parents: His father was an assistant warden at a maximum-security prison; his mother was a legal secretary.
But the pay was better at the nearby Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where McGinnis landed a job in security.
“It was kind of like a tactical response team,” he says. “That’s what I did for 15 years. Run, jump, shoot - that kind of thing.
“I found out that my job actually depended on my health because if I couldn’t run or jump or shoot anymore, I didn’t have a job. So I learned how the plant operated and got over to the other side of the plant, got into operations and management and shot up the ladder pretty quick.”
McGinnis ended up transferring to Y-12 in Oak Ridge in the mid-1990s, and when he had a chance to “retire” when employees were asked to take voluntary reductions in force, he did so. He worked for a contracting company for about three years before launching his own business, Echota Technologies Corp., in Alcoa in 2000. Echota has about 100 employees, including five Native Americans (counting McGinnis), and primarily does training for the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the international commercial nuclear community and private industry.
McGinnis won an award from the Department of Defense in 2006, and the state of Tennessee named Echota the Minority Small Business of the Year in 2008 and McGinnis the Small Business Person of the Year in 2009.
After McGinnis started Echota, his wife, Marsha (whose ancestry is British), recognized that he needed something to do besides work.
“Several years ago, in 2002 or 2003, I came home one evening, and my wife asked me if I’d be interested in going to a Native American flute workshop,” he recalls. “And I went, ‘Sure.’”
The workshop was being given by R. Carlos Nakai, a Navajo musician. McGinnis owned several of his CDs.
“She wanted me to try it as a stress-relief kind of thing,” he says. “I’d never really played out in public before that, just for myself.
“So I went to the workshop. I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll meet other Native American people there.’ Wrong. I think that year there were two of us - me and R.C. It was kind of funny.”
McGinnis apparently stood out from the two dozen non-Native Americans taking the workshop.
“R.C. said, ‘People need to hear your music.’ He was convinced I was fairly good,” says McGinnis. “So I figured, he was the master, he thought I was pretty good, then there must be something to it. So I started playing.
“Of course then, you know, one thing leads to another. You play one place, somebody wants you to play another. And then as I was playing, I started realizing, ‘How come there are no Native artists playing music? Most of them can’t afford it, and the ones that could, the record labels pretty much took advantage of them. And if the record label wasn’t taking advantage of them, they were taking advantage of the record label.’ It wasn’t a good environment.
“So I thought, maybe I can give enough other people inspiration to go out and play, too. So I made my first recording, ‘Ancient Voices of the Smoky Mountains.’ It’s a good, traditional CD.”
McGinnis followed that up with “Walking With the Spirits,” which featured Knoxville Symphony Orchestra violinist Lucie Novoveska. The album won a Native American Music Award last year.
“A ton of people have their work submitted for that, and they narrow it down to five, and the public picks the winner,” says McGinnis. “Everybody in the community listens and picks the winner, so I was very honored to win that.”
McGinnis has a new album called “The Water Place.” He records at his own studio, which he built about three years ago near his office in Alcoa. He doesn’t play every day, but he always has his flutes with him, even when he travels.
The studio serves as home for McGinnis’ record label, Deer Star Productions, and offers recording services to any musician.
“A lot of our business is bands coming in wanting to do demo tapes,” says McGinnis. “George Martin, my sound engineer, runs the record label. He played for Ted Nugent for quite a few years. He’s a great guitar player.”
McGinnis’ studio has some history of its own.
“We’ve got some really great recording equipment. We bought a whole suite from Abbey Road. It’s a synthetic Abbey Road. It’s in the virtual world, But it’s the same equipment. It’s got the same results. It’s a software package.”
The stress relief McGinnis gets from the flute must be working because he seems to be busy all the time. In addition to his day job and performances - many of which take him across the country - he created the Smoky Mountain Flute Circle to teach the Native American flute in group classes on the third Saturday of every month.
“We start at 10 in the morning, and it goes to supposedly noon but it goes to 1, 2 or 3 o’clock a lot of times,” he says. “We started about three years ago, I guess, and we actually have done some concerts with all the students, and they really do a great job.”
McGinnis is all about community and being supportive, concepts he learned as a child.
“It seemed like our home was the House for Wayward Indians,” he says. “Southern Ohio is about halfway between Oklahoma and Washington, D.C. Whenever anybody was traveling back and forth, they’d just kind of stop at the house.
“You’d wake up in the morning, and there’d be a bunch of Indians in the house - a true Native will understand that. And then they’d be gone right after sun-up.”
Sometimes the guests would be celebrities.
“Iron Eyes Cody was a friend of my dad’s,” says McGinnis. “They just met over the years.”
McGinnis’ world isn’t restricted to Cherokee friends.
“We used to get around a lot when we were kids,” he says. “My parents and grandparents would take us to reservations. We would come down here. We’d go to the Seminoles down in Florida, out west to a lot of the reservations out there. I made friends out there over the years.”
In addition to being a supporter of local arts, Maryville Arts Coalition is the organization that plans and supports Maryville’s Last Friday Art Walk each month. The organization also donates two $500 scholarships each year to local students interested in pursuing art in college. The monies from the much-needed fundraiser will go to help support the Art Walk and other MAC ventures.
Tickets, $10 each, are available at Blount Today, Boyd Thomas Clothing, Village Tinker and from MAC board members. In addition, Silver Spoons Café at the Clayton Center for the Arts will stay open later the night of the concert for those who want to eat before the 7 p.m. show, and will donate a portion of the proceeds from the evening to MAC.
For information about MAC, Art Walk and the concert, go to www.maryvilleartwalk.com.