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When hillbilly ultratraditionalist Marty Brown signed on with king-of-country-labels MCA, the record company's PR Pooh-Bahs were charged with finding a novel way to get his High and Dry music to the people. Much too country for modern country radio, Brown's high-mountain wails, yodels and Fifties-style honky-tonk were getting virtually no air play. So MCA dropped Brown into the cockpit of a block-long Cadillac convertible and shooed him off to play at Wal-Mart stores across the South. This bizarre ploy to promote the singer seemed to click, and Brown loved it.
Now faced with promoting the Mavericks, a band of pickers and pluckers from the palmy-balmy land of Estefan--a place with about as much country-and-western music fervor as one might find in, say, Kabul--and led by, perhaps, the only hillbilly tenor of Cuban heritage in the history of Earth, MCA reached once again into its bag of tricks. The result: MCA would send this fresh, new band from Miami on a tour of Naugahyde nooks where, traditionally, those in the sunset of their careers find themselves singing "Feelings" and "Proud Mary."
After a bit of mild--if understandable--skepticism, the Mavericks embarked on their Lounge n Around World Tour. They would sing for their room and supper in hotel bars throughout the East. To the band's leader, however, this row would be easy to hoe--especially in the sunlight of the Mavericks' rocky beginnings.
"I was your everyday average freak," he laughs during a telephone conversation from the downtown Marriott in Chicago, where the Mavericks would play their last lounge of the tour. "I didn't want to listen to disco music. Guys my age were driving around in Camaros blasting out 'Disco Inferno.' I wanted to cruise in a Cadillac listening to Carl Perkins." He pauses, then adds, "I didn't have many friends."
Yet he didn't just up and decide to be a country crooner out of some sort of profoundly strange adolescent rebellion, donning his trademark black Stetson in an attempt to gain attention or to tweak the strobe-light sensibilities of cosmopolitan Miami. Since Malo's hometown is hardly a hotbed of hillbilly music, just where did he find his honky-tonk heart?
"When my folks left Cuba in 1959 to get away from Castro," the singer relates, "they brought a box full of record albums with them. When I was about 6, I was looking through them. There was Hank Williams Sr. in there, and Bill Haley and Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. . . I pulled out a record and put it on. I listened to 'Rock Around the Clock' and, I tell you, I was blown away."
But it was a couple of years later that Malo was confronted with the music and the man.
"I was 8 years old," he recalls, "and I saw that Elvis-in-Hawaii special on TV. I didn't know anything about tackiness or gaudiness, but he was wearing this suit I was sure nobody else would wear. I just knew I liked what I heard and what I saw. And I knew what I wanted to be."
Malo eventually became a familiar, if unusual, sight in his Calle Ocho neighborhood in Little Havana, prowling the cafe-lined streets wearing a big, black cowboy hat and hauling a six-string guitar.
"I'd tell anyone who'd listen, 'Hey, I'm gonna be a country singer.' Of course they'd just shake their heads like, 'Man, this boy's crazy.'"
But Malo kept his guitar and hat and, no matter the peer pressure, his direction. After high school, he found himself at the rear of the stage playing bass and singing backup in bands that produced mostly Top 40, wedding-reception music.
In fact, a frustrated Malo could find nary a single contemporary who even knew about the old C&W standards that he loved--until he met Robert Reynolds.
"He was the first person I ever met who knew who Waylon Jennings was," Malo sighs.
The Kansas City-born Reynolds had moved to Miami with his family when he was 10. He, too, was an early aficionado--and record collector--of the old country stuff and, when he and Malo met, was playing guitar with area country bands, picking with fellows a couple of decades his senior. Reynolds' best pal was old schoolmate Paul Deakin, a transplanted Ohioan who drummed for sundry rock, punk and funk bands around town. When Deakin made noises about doing something different, Reynolds introduced him to Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Hank the Elder. The music's rootsy realism appealed to the drummer, and Deakin was in the fold.
In 1989, Malo, Reynolds and Deakin formed their experiment. Malo traded his bass for Reynolds' rhythm guitar and moved to the front of the stage. After drafting a local electric guitarist (whose Mavericks tenure would be short-lived), a band was born. The Mavericks garnered a following fairly quickly, but--in typical Mavericks' fashion--by treading the road less taken. This, says Robert Reynolds, has made all the difference.
"The country bars and clubs around town wanted us to play country-western covers, but we just weren't interested in that," Reynolds recalls. "So we played in rock clubs and places that would let us do originals." It was not unusual to find the Mavericks twanging away in alternative clubs as part of a bill that might feature such metallurgical acts as the Hooded Woodies and My Dad Is Dead.