Bobby Bullet | Iron River, Michigan
St. Germaine was my biological father’s last name. My mother was quite young when I was born in a government hospital in Hayward, Wisconsin. My mother and my father never got married and my father died when I was probably four years old, so I never got a chance to know him. He was killed in the war after throwing himself on a hand grenade to save his buddies. Well, I take his name to keep my connection with him.
Music is a part of me; I’ve always been attracted to it, but it just needed to be pulled out of me. I remember my mother’s brother played guitar and a little fiddle. All my uncle’s brothers played guitar. My aunt’s husband played the fiddle. In fact, he did trick fiddling in a traveling carnival show with his buddy. His buddy would stand about 10 to 20 feet away while my uncle fiddled and smoked a cigarette. Taking the whip, his buddy cracked the cigarette right out his mouth. Well, that part of the act lasted until the whip caught my uncle on the cheek.
When I was seven, I used to pretend I could play guitar by picking it up and strumming, but I didn’t know what I was doing till I was about eleven when my uncle showed me the D and G chords. At that time, TV was just coming out and we’d listen to The Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. I didn’t quite understand a lot of what they did on the show and what made those sounds, but I was attracted to it. I think I was attracted to the guitar because I was so shy. I kind of hid behind it…and, to a certain extent, I still do. The guitar is my shield.
At that time, music came through the radio. I love radio because you can paint your own picture as you’re listening, and a lot of those old radio shows, like the Gene Autry Show, would spark my imagination. When I was about twelve, my family traveled down to Nashville to The Grand Ole Opry. Tickets were something like a buck and a quarter and I remember it being hotter than a son of a gun. I got a chance to leave my seat and look down over the rail at what was going on behind the curtain. I found the whole music scene there alluring.
We went over to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop where Ernest Tubb played for what I think was an hour’s worth of music. I sat there a few feet away from him for the whole show and just let it wash over me. I snuck around the back and asked Ernest Tubb for his autograph. “Just a minute, son. I got to go get my check,” he responded. When he came back, he signed it—that was a big deal. So, yes, I was drawn to that show business stuff and thought, ‘Boy, I’d like to be a part of that.’
As a youngster, I listened to different styles: Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins—all those guys. I probably wrote my first song when I was in grade school in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. I took a piece of paper, made the lines across it, and put notes on there. I gave it to my music teacher who then said, ‘You see, children, this is what Bob did, he made this music’ and went and played it on the piano. I had no idea what it would sound like because I didn’t even know what music notes were, but it made me happy to get that recognition.
My aunt worked at a care center for the elderly when I was young. She brought me to the center for one of my first performances, and I remember I had my hair slicked back and they had dressed me up in a little cowboy shirt. When they brought me to the piano at the center, I said, ‘What should I do?’ They responded, ‘Well…sing!’ I had learned one song, a Ray Price song, and I started singing. I got about halfway through when some woman down the hallway said, ‘Will somebody shut that little cowboy up?’ So that’s a taste of show business!
A young man picks up the guitar to impress the girls—at least I did. Those were my two big things as a teen: cars and girls. I got my first experience in the real show business a little later when I went to Nashville. After being in that town for a while, I realized that a lot of what you see is phony. I remember one time I was playing my guitar and singing on stage with a group of other guys. As I looked around, it felt phony, and when they laughed, their laughs were fake, too. I was thinking that most of these guys think they’re having fun but they’re not really. It was at this point that I changed my direction and went from what is fake to what is true. Truth. Telling things as you see it.
The road to truth is a hard road to walk. It was on that stage where I got separated from my old self into what I am now.
There were a lot of drugs going through the studios and I remember sitting in one of them, not realizing that the couch I was on was where they were storing the drugs. In those days, sometimes George Jones would come in with his hat crooked and messed up on drugs. Johnny Paycheck was there sometimes, too. I remember sitting there in disbelief—here were guys that were pretty big stars but all messed up. Some other guys were coming in with pistols and putting them on the desk. I decided I had to get out of that.
Well, I got out of there clean. When I started going back to my homelands, I started to take a deeper look at our people—Native Peoples. I remember wondering what happened to our religion and I discovered that it’s not religion that we live by but a way of life.
I started having dreams—spiritual dreams—and decided to put my drinking aside. The dreams grew more vivid, and I started going to some of the Elders to ask them what those dreams meant. In Upper Michigan, I went to a fast and did a sweat lodge where I was supposed to be four days without food and water. But on the second day, one of the men there said, ‘Bob, what are you supposed to do?’ I told him, ‘I think I’m supposed to go to Canada to meet some old people.’ ‘I know that,’ the man said, ‘they’ve been waiting for you for three years.’
So I found my way up to Canada where Elders were still practicing and teaching our way of life. After spending time with them, one of the Elders passed a pipe down to me and said, ‘You’re to have a gathering of the peoples to share your teachings.’
During this time, I had put my music aside, but my spiritual side was burning bright. I picked my music back up as a way to do my spiritual work. And now that I’m retired, I want to share the teachings because with the knowledge that I have at my age, you never know, you could change somebody’s life.
My wife Pam and I went to a Milwaukee Indian school and taught songwriting for about two years. The concept was to teach Indian law and language through songs. It was a great experience for us. There was a twelve-year-old girl who came up and pointed at us and said, ‘You’re my new mom and dad.’ Then her teacher told us she and her brother witnessed her dad getting shot and killed in the kitchen two weeks ago. A few months later I wrote a song for her called, ‘May I Lean on You?’ and when I presented it to her she didn’t really care for it. A year later, one of her teachers told me, ‘She recorded your song, Bob.’ She had recorded and sang the song in a rap type presentation. It was such a good song, I got it on one of my albums. When I sing it in public, I always say whose song it is so she knows somebody’s there thinking about her and praying for her.
In 2013, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Washington gave me a fellowship to write music and interview Elders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In our tradition, there’s a way to approach an Elder if you want to record them: you can give tobacco or a little gift or something that shows respect. A lot of their stories have been simmering for 50 years. Well, hearing those stories was an eye-opener, and, as I listened, I would get six songs going at once. It was incredible to see what they went through and how their lives changed. They went from this point to that point—but the destination was never the actual goal. As they would say, what we learn on the way is what’s important.
I also write songs that act as a diary. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I had a lot of dogs. They were my buddies. I had Bullet and King, Hobo, Lucky, Shep, Skippy, and one dog called ‘No Good.’ I wrote a song called ‘Drifting Away’ that starts out talking about Hobo and it could be about myself, getting at the age where things are starting to slip upstairs:
I see my old dog Hobo, standing on the shore. There’s my high school sweetheart, Annie ruled my world. Sixty years slipped on by, like some faded dream. Deep inside I want to cry, I’m forgetting me.
Drifting away, drifting away, I’m drifting away from the shore. Like some old faded vessel, drifting out to sea. I look back to see the ones that’s waving back at me. Why, I think I see my mother, but I can’t really say. I’m losing my tomorrows and all my yesterdays.
When you leave this world and step over into the unconscious where anything goes and where there’s no time, that’s where songs and ideas come from—the beyond. If your ears are big enough to be able to catch it, you’re a lucky person! At my age, I’m still listening and learning and I’m very grateful to be alive. The way I look at it, the creator has something planned for me and I hope that I’m around to see what it is.
Bobby Bullet’s story was produced by Adam Blackbourn and is part of our series on Wisconsin musicians.
Bobby’s song, ‘May I lean on you (Julissa’s song.) This was a 2021 Tiny Desk Concert Entry.
Bobby Bullet’s song, “Lac du Flambeau Reservation” was nominated for 2012 Single of the Year by the Native American Music Awards.