Country music is more popular than it's ever been. CDs and concert tickets are selling like never before. The names of Garth, Clint and Reba now carry the kind of global recognition once reserved only for Sinatra. Black cowboy hats have become the most nauseating pop-culture symbol since disco's platform shoe. It looks like that old bumper-sticker saying, "If it ain't country, it ain't music," has finally come true. The charred underbelly of country music's current popularity is that most of the music's cutting-edge performers have been driven away by the Nashville establishment. Music City's small minds and tight asses have convinced k.d. lang, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Carlene Carter and others to head for less uptight surroundings--usually Austin or L.A. Fed up with trying to fit one of Nashville's preset molds, most outcasts end up leaving the music, too. The process of being what singer Tish Hinojosa calls "starved out of Nashville" is usually the same. First, anyone too imaginative or too determinedly iconoclastic is out. A more onimous obstacle to Nashville success is race. Although a few minority performers like the Mavericks' Raul Malo and black singer Cleve Francis have broken through, country music has always been a white fraternity. For any other race, finding success there often means sounding and acting white. For Tish Hinojosa, that was a condition she was willing to accept--for a while. Blessed with a supple, Emmyloulike soprano and decent guitar skills, the dark-eyed, dark-haired Hinojosa had begun her musical career at home in San Antonio, where she sang traditional Mexican music. In the mid-Seventies, she moved to New Mexico, where she learned about "progressive" country music from Taos twit Michael Murphy. It was there that she set her sights on Nashville.
Hinojosa's fantasy of country-music success began in 1983 when she and her family moved to Music City. Behind the Pine Curtain, Hinojosa (pronounced ee-no-HO-sah) landed a job in the office of Mel Tillis Productions and even made a single, "I'll Pull You Through," for Curb Records. But it wasn't long before the cliques and stylistic walls that Nashville is famous for began to hem her in. Hinojosa's idea was to form an original style, mixing what she calls "real country music"--tunes by Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard and especially Bob Wills--with her border-music heritage. The Nashville record producers said no. Success would come only on their terms. Hinojosa had to choose between being an English-only, "Stand By Your Man" crooner or a Spanish-language singer to be pitched at the niche Latino market. Only the former meant mainstream success. Hinojosa decided to try to play it Nashville's way.
"The first year in Nashville, it was so new to me. And I wasn't ready to pitch myself as a songwriter. So I tried to give them what they wanted in a singer," Hinojosa says. "But as I grew as a songwriter, my background began to be more and more a part of my music. After a while, I couldn't fit into the neat package they wanted."
Finding her own voice and point of view opened Hinojosa's eyes to racism she had previously been too starstruck to see. At around the same time, Hinojosa and husband (and now-manager) Craig Barker also had their first child. These two factors combined to inspire Hinojosa into a full-fledged rediscovery of what she calls her "Hispanicness."
"I've been around people who were racist all my life and often I didn't even know it," she says flatly from her home in Austin. "It all depends on how you let things roll off your back. In Nashville, people would be telling Mexican jokes and I'd be right there with them, laughing. But when I walked away, I'd always be thinking, 'Don't they know what I am?' "A lot of things were born when my first child was born. When I didn't or couldn't have my heritage anymore, it became more precious to me. I had a new baby and I began to feel an obligation to this new generation to pass that heritage on to her."
Hinojosa left Nashville in 1986. Since then she's been riding an emotional roller coaster that's included stops at a major label, an indie label and periods of nerve-racking idleness. Lately, though, the 37-year-old Hinojosa has found holding on to her wild ride a bit easier.
Last summer, Hinojosa signed with Boston-based indie Rounder Records. In September, Rounder released Hinojosa's second studio album, Culture Swing. This strong collection shows that Hinojosa has hit pay dirt in her quest for a style that blends the fiddles and pedal steel of country music with the bajo sexto and accordion of conjunto music. Conjunto is one of the traditional forms of Mexican-American border music that began in Texas. Most of all, Culture Swing is a songwriting showcase. From conjunto-flavored ballads like "Crazon Viajero" (Wandering Heart"), gorgeous, country-pop crossovers like "Every Word" and western swing shuffles like "Louisiana Road Song," every tune here is a winner. While most lope along at a midtempo gallop, Hinojosa's melodies have become truly memorable. Filled with images of "prairie moons" and "long, cold beers," Hinojosa's lyrics can be emotionally direct or overtly political, as in "Something in the Rain," a tribute to migrant workers killed by pesticides. Labeled "Mex-Tex" by longtime Hinojosa pal Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Culture Swing is exactly the kind of artistically distinct yet hard-to-pigeonhole musical hybrid that makes Nashville nervous.
After leaving Nashville, Hinojosa began searching for a record label with vision, one that would not only understand, but actively wanted to feed her desire to create an original style.
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In 1989, A&M Records signed Hinojosa to its newly launched Americana Series--an ambitious project designed to record American roots music like country, Cajun and blues. The first two releases in the series were Hinojosa's Homeland and an album by Cajun-zydeco wild man Zachary Richard.
"I really felt it was a crossroads between art and commerce," Hinojosa says about signing with A&M. "I was really anxious about working with them. I wanted to prove the artistry side of creating. I turned down bigger offers to be there."
Homeland turned out to be a textbook example of the kind of record A&M aimed for when it launched the Americana Series, one that created a new music out of traditional forms--in this case, country and conjunto. Although it was a slow seller, the album was praised by critics and industry insiders alike. As is so often the case with American music, Homeland found a more receptive audience overseas. Hinojosa's lilting voice and gentle melodies won her legions of fans in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. She even had the satisfaction of seeing the album go triple platinum--in Korea.
"It was just one of those chance things," she says with a disbelieving chuckle. "The head of the PolyGram office in Korea had the CD playing when an executive from Korea's television network--there's only one--came in looking for a theme for a soap opera. For some reason, they settled on "Dond Voy," and the record took off from there."
Unfortunately, a corporate shakeup and slow sales figures leeched away A&M's enthusiasm for the Americana concept. When Patrick Clifford, the A&R rep behind Hinojosa's signing, left the company, it was clear that Hinojosa's days at A&M were numbered. Originally intended as the follow-up to Homeland, Culture Swing, which was nearly complete, was shelved indefinitely. While Richard managed to remain with A&M, Tish was unceremoniously given the boot. So far, Culture Swing seems to be the jump start Hinojosa needed to get her career on track. Although she admits that she thought about holding out and waiting for a better offer, Hinojosa says she feels good about being on Rounder, a label she feels "really cares about the music." Practically the day Culture Swing came out, Hinojosa's self-produced debut cassette, Taos to Tennessee, was reissued by Austin indie Watermelon Records. In 1991, Watermelon also issued a Hinojosa live set, Aquella Noche (That Certain Night), and her Christmas record, Memorabilia Navidena.
Happy to be back in Texas, Hinojosa sounds exhausted but happy when she says her life has gotten "crazy." Juggling her family--Nina, age 5, and Adam, age 2--with her newly blossoming career is difficult. On this day, she says she's been up since before dawn shooting the video for Culture Swing's second single, "Closer Still." The album's first single-video, "In the Real West," has been in rotation on Country Music Television (CMT) since October. Is the airplay of her video a sign things in the Nashville establishment are changing? Hinojosa says she's not sure. And she's quick to add that it will take more than a liberal video network to lure her back. "Someday, in a perfect world, when they form the board of directors for the new rules of country music, I want to be on it," she says, half-laughing. "The first thing is to sign or drop artists on merit, not because a label feels they have a slot open for a female singer. Or because they can't find a song about the border for her to sing.