By Lauren Wise
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By Chris Parker
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.
"We were alternative for Miami," laughs Reynolds. "We'd have these crowds of Mohawked thrash kids in black tee shirts who thought we were hip as can be, some well-dressed young trendies and older folks who just plain liked country music."
The Mavericks would pack joints like the bluesy Cactus Cantina Grill and alternative rock hut Washington Square. Since they often followed rock-heavy groups and the like, they shied from describing themselves as "country" so as not to petrify the club owners.
"We'd just say we couldn't be categorized," Reynolds explains, "or we wouldn't say anything."
By the fall of the next year, wind of the Mavericks' unusual sound and, well, maverick configuration had begun to rustle Music City's heavy Pine Curtain ever so slightly. Encouraged, the band members pooled their monies and cut a 13-song effort, which they released independently. That tape eventually found its way to MCA-Nashville chieftain Bruce Hinton, who ordered that this strange band be brought to Nashville for an open showcase. With an audience that included a panoply of A&R reps from major labels--plus such early pro-Mavericks luminaries as Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless--it took no more than the band's preshow sound check to convince showcase host MCA to sign the Miamians.
"We'd 'made the grade,' as it were, before the show," Reynolds recalls happily. "And we got five formal major-label offers afterward. But the deal was done."
Recognizing the Mavericks' reluctance to cater to Nashville norms (The process there doesn't interest us much," Reynolds understates. "We just don't fit.) and determined to capture the band's showcase sound, the Mavericks' inaugural MCA release was recorded at Miami's Criteria Studios. Produced by Steve Fishell (Jann Browne, McBride and the Ride)--who also contributes top-of-the-line dobro and pedal steel parts within--the initial tracks for From Hell to Paradise were laid down. Austin guitarist David Lee Holt--who cut his musical teeth with Texas legend Joe Ely and, more recently, has worked with ex-Screaming Siren Rosie Flores, Carlene Carter and the house band at famed Antone's in Austin--was recruited to add some electric leads to the effort. After Holt's session work, he became a Maverick.
From Hell to Paradise certainly captures the Mavericks' eclectic sound--left-of-center," as Reynolds calls it. Save for faithful, flavorful covers of Luke the Drifter's "Hey Good Lookin'" and the Harlan Howard/Buck Owens classic "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)--the latter rendered especially nicely by Malo's plaintive, Orbisonesque tenor--the album's contents are all written by Raul Malo. The album's filled with traditional country strains and sounds (the tender, pure country "This Broken Heart" should be savored forever) and Malo's lifelong different-drummer approach is evident in his songs about the homeless (Mr. Jones) and child abuse (Children). But it's the gripping, true story contained in the title cut that, if not the disc's best song, is the centerpiece of From Hell to Paradise.
Malo never tires of telling the story:
"My Aunt Delores was still in Cuba after my parents left for the States. One day, in the very early Sixties, Castro was in this big parade, and my aunt--who always spoke her mind--gave him hell as he passed by. Next thing she knew, there was a machine gun at the back of her head, and they took her to jail. Instead of keeping her there, they let her go, but told her that she couldn't leave the island for 30 years."
The normally upbeat, fast-talking Malo pauses.
"Thirty years to the day, she came over. The first thing she says is, 'From hell to paradise.'"
While the Mavericks are, by and large, happy as heck to reach the end of the Lounge n Around World Tour, they understand and appreciate how this unusual enterprise has been successful in introducing the equally unusual band to the record-buying masses. The oddity of it all has also gained them a wide and wild range of press recognition, including prominent mentions in such periodicals as Amusement Business and Elle magazines.
"Really," Reynolds maintains, "we are sorry to see it go. But we hope we don't have to do it again until the end of our careers, the natural time to be hitting hotel lounges. But it's worked out very, very well."
Now in Chicago putting the finishing touches on the Lounge n Around World Tour, the band prepares to go honky-tonkin'. The status of From Hell to Paradise is on their minds. Drummer Deakin has, in the past, kindly referred to a "logjam of great bands" making it naturally difficult to penetrate country-music radio stations' Nashville-or-nothing playlists. Malo is, typically, more forthright in his complaint.
"There's no room for real, old-fashioned country, it seems, or for good alternative country sounds, on radio," he states. "Maybe they forget that Johnny Cash was a rebel, too. It was hard for him to get played because of the same kind of attitudes."
Mavericks' bassist Reynolds is less pessimistic, referring to several new acts that, once finding space on country radio, prove to the music-director powers that it can work. Among those Reynolds mentions are Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood. Yearwood, who scored in a big way with last year's "She's in Love With the Boy," coincidentally (or not) has been romantically linked with none other than Robert Reynolds.
The Mavericks' post-lounge Western swing carries them through September, at which time they'll jet to Miami. Even though the band will move its base of operations from southern Florida (It takes 12 hours just to get to the Georgia state line," notes Reynolds), its members are looking forward to layin' around and playin' around their own town for a spell. With their growing celebrity, the homecoming will doubtless be most sweet. It will also give the band a chance to give thanks to those who had supported the offbeat group's aims when the going was tough. Alternative or not, the Mavericks recognize old-fashioned things like loyalty.
"Those country bars that wanted us to do five sets of human-jukebox stuff are clamoring to get us now, but they won't," says Reynolds. "I don't mean to sound bad, but they can't afford us. And even if they could, we wouldn't play there. None of us gives a damn, either. We'll be playing those rock and thrash clubs who let us on stage when no one else would.
"And this time," Reynolds laughs, "We'll tell em out loud: 'We're country!'"
FROM RUSSIA WITH GLOVE RUDY USED TO BE A... v9-09-92
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