FLACO 'ROUND THE CLOCKONCE JUST A WARM CHUBASCO, TEX-MEX IS ACQUIRING TORNADO FORCE
"Do you have Flaco Jimenez's new solo recording?" The clerk at the west-side record shop responds with a blank stare that says he's never heard of it, then rifles through the section marked "Norteno."
After 30 years of recording jukebox 45s for fly-by-night south Texas labels, Flaco, undisputed "El Rey of the Accordion," has finally landed a deal with a major American label. His first album, Partners, is a collection of duets with gringo guests such as Dwight Yoakam and John Hiatt.
"I know we've had it," the clerk says. "But we don't have any now."
What the store does have is every cheesy cassette Flaco ever made. At $6 a whack, they're a bargain. When I ask about a well-known series of tejano-roots compilations, only one is in stock.
Surveying the flashy covers of tejano big-band and Mexican-pop tapes in the store, it occurs to me that Latinos, particularly those of Mexican descent living in the Southwestern U.S., are losing touch with their heritage.
They're not the first. Ignorance, even denial, of a musical past is a widespread conundrum. Whites who love empty heads in black hats like Garth, Clint and George wouldn't cross the street to hear bluegrass. Legions of blacks no longer buy--or in some cases even admit to a connection to--the blues and early forms of jazz.
But many times, as one race or culture forgets its past, another embraces it. The biggest audience for blues today is white. And the biggest blues fanatics live in France and Germany.
Now, Tex-Mex music is seeping across ethnic boundaries. Led by the Anglo-Latino group the Texas Tornados, Tex-Mex seems poised to break into the mainstream. It is today where Cajun music and zydeco were ten years ago. Significantly, Tex-Mex is spreading to rock acts. Three new albums by Chris Gaffney, the Forbidden Pigs and the Iguanas all have a pronounced Tex-Mex flavor.
While a connection between rock and Tex-Mex is not new--Sam the Sham, the Champs and Joe "King" Carrasco pioneered it--it has never flirted so with the mainstream. The Tornados are pitching breakfast burritos for McDonald's. Who knows? In a few years, Rhode Islanders may say they've seen a bajo sexto or danced to a ranchera.
Tex-Mex music, which has always included a strong Anglo influence, is related to conjunto (a countrified traditional form), norteno (the Mexico-based progenitor of all border music) and tejano (pop/big bands). It first emerged in the 1950s. Unlike mariachi music, which has its roots in Mexico, Tex-Mex was born in the U.S. Like all border music, it is the product of a head-on collision between the traditional Mexican-American culture of Texas and the wave of German immigrants that settled there after the Civil War. The two sides of Tex-Mex's heritage can most clearly be seen in its two main instruments: the 12-stringed Mexican guitar, bajo sexto, and the German button accordion. Tex-Mex lyrics are in Spanish, but the genre's musical structures come directly from European forms like the polka and American rock n' roll.
Like all popular music, Tex-Mex has split into many different stylistic branches--some closer to Mexican pop, others more traditional. In general, it's a loose, dance-floor-oriented music that can include anything from "La Bamba" to "Boogie Nights." Tex-Mex has always been played almost exclusively from head arrangements, meaning neither the songs nor the arrangements were written down. This means live shows inevitably are ragged affairs. It has also made it difficult to record, which explains why singles have proliferated.
What holds most Tex-Mex bands together is a strong accordion leader. Accordion players have always been the stars of border music. Accordionist Bruno Villarreal made the first conjunto accordion recordings in 1928. But it was Santiago Jimenez who, in the 1930s, made traditional conjunto the reigning popular music among Latinos in Texas. His sons Santiago and particularly Leonardo, who like his father acquired the nickname Flaco ("skinny"), would make conjunto's modern offspring, Tex-Mex, world famous.
The greatest force in the Tex-Mex renaissance is the Texas Tornados. The Tornados were once the pipe dream of Nashville-based managers Stuart Dill and Cameron Randle, who at the time had Freddy Fender as a client. According to Paige Levy, the VP of A&R for Warner Bros. in Nashville and the person responsible for signing the band, Dill and Randle had approached Warner about the idea of a Tex-Mex supergroup years before the Tornados became a reality.
The problem was the pair couldn't settle on a combination. Their dilemma was solved by chance one night in December 1989 when Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez jammed together at Slim's in San Francisco. All four were Texans who knew each other, and in some cases had worked together. Dubbing themselves the "Tex-Mex Revue," the quartet went on without a single rehearsal and brought down the house. A month later, the Tornados were signed to Warner/Reprise.
The most startling aspect of this unlikely story is that the Tornados were signed by a major label. Even more surprising was the solo recording by Flaco that followed. Although Levy denies it now, there was concern at Warner over investing in a Tex-Mex band.
"It was a risk. But you're talking to a person who works at a label with a jazz banjo player on it," Levy says, referring to Bela Fleck. "No one around here flinched at the idea of a Tex-Mex recording."
The group has released three albums, Texas Tornados, Zone of Their Own and the new Hanging On by a Thread. The three albums are similar. All contain the Tornados' mix of Flaco accordion tunes, Freddy Fender's Sixties pop numbers and Sahm's rock adventures. What makes it work is that this grizzled quartet swaggers and staggers through good-naturedly.
Originally pitched to country radio, the Tornados are now heard exclusively on tejano, college and alternative radio stations. A classic between-the-stylistic-cracks act, the group's sales figures are solid if unspectacular. According to Levy, the first album has sold nearly 400,000 copies and is "creeping" toward gold. Zone has sold 200,000 copies, and the new album is currently at 70,000.
The debut album was released in both Spanish and English; the English version far outsold the Spanish disc.
"The Spanish version was done because our office in Mexico City heard how well the Tornados were doing up here and they thought they could make it a hit, too. But it had to be solamente espaol," Levy says. "The funny part is it did not go well. Pop is king in Mexico, and it [the album] just didn't sell."
The Tornados have brought a new measure of success and relevance to the checkered careers of all four principals.
"The main reason we're the first to make Tex-Mex really big in the U.S. is that we didn't start at the bottom," Sahm says. "We all had careers and reputations before the Tornados. People come to hear Freddy do 'Before the Next Teardrop Falls,' and end up staying for Flaco's stuff. Next thing you know, they like Tex-Mex. Our live show is also a big part of why we've been a success. Tex-Mex has always gone over big live.
"The last reason is that I think people come to see us because they figure, 'These four crazy motherfuckers together--hell, it won't last long.'"
According to Sahm, the only place the Tornados don't play well is in the Carolinas and Kentucky. "Ah, it's that fuckin' hillbilly thing there, you know." The band has had the most success along the border--Texas, Arizona and California. Phoenix became a key market for the Tornados when the lead cut on Zone of Their Own opened with, "Is anybody goin' to San Antone from Phoenix, Arizona?"
Along with the Tornados, Sahm is fired up about a new rock n' roll recording he's making for Elektra with his son, Shawn. Despite his need to rock out and the Tornados' willingness to experiment--the new album has a reggae cut--he says the Tornados will never deemphasize Tex-Mex in favor of something more radio-friendly.
"We couldn't and wouldn't do anything else," he says emphatically. "We know you have to be Boyz II Men to get on MTV. But can you see Flaco in R.E.M.?"
The Tornados have been invited to play Bill Clinton's inaugural. "Yeah, man, we're playing the 'Southern Ball,' Sahm says. "It's us, Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel and the Allman Brothers. What a bill!"
The surprise that rippled through the music biz when Warner Bros. signed the Tornados was nothing compared to the head-scratching that went on when the same label announced a Flaco solo album.
The inspiration for Partners came partially from Flaco's Amigos, the solo effort Flaco recorded for Arhoolie Records in 1987. On that album, Flaco was joined by Peter Rowan, Ry Cooder and a few other Anglo musicians. Realizing the guest list would be the key that would unlock a larger audience, Warner Bros. took Arhoolie's idea to a higher level. Here the guests are all heavy hitters--Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Stephen Stills, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris and longtime Flaco crony Linda Ronstadt. Everyone on the recording had worked with Flaco before and the recording's genuine quality comes from the fact that they all sound like they're returning a favor.
Flaco's performances are equal to the guest list. After 60 albums--most recorded on inferior equipment for the cassette-only market--Flaco finally was put into a quality studio with quality players. He made the most of it.
As with the Tornados, Warner's gamble on Flaco has been rewarded. Marketed both on Warner/Reprise and the Latin Warner Discos labels, Partners has been a modest but growing success. Whether this disc will inspire more major labels to sign and market other Tex-Mex players is an open question. Although the all-star guest list certainly helped sales, Partners has proved that Tex-Mex has a ready niche and a chance for larger success.
Musically, Partners is Tex-Mex-flavored pop, to be sure. But covers like "West Texas Waltz" with Emmylou Harris, Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" with Dwight Yoakam and "That's the Way the Girls Are" all sound like Tex-Mex standards. The disc also contains four accordion instrumentals.
To the ageless, unflappable Flaco, none of this is a shock.
"It's always been good-time music that people can dance to. I've always thought that it was only a matter of time until people caught on," he says matter-of-factly from his home in San Antonio. "Singing in English is the big key, though. Anglos wouldn't listen when it was all in Spanish. They couldn't understand it. I don't blame them."
Along with zydeco players like Terrance Simien, Flaco is also a leader is remaking the image of the accordion. Since the Sixties, the accordion has languished in uncool doldrums, a symbol for rock fans of lederhosen, "roll out the barrel" and geeks like Lawrence Welk.
"I like to keep things changing, keep the music new. I want young people to hear it," Flaco says. "I don't want them only to think of all those old polka guys when they hear, 'accordion.'"
The success of the Tornados and Flaco is affecting a number of rock acts. The accordion and the dance-hall spirit of Tex-Mex have been heard in three recent albums.
Released in mid-1992 Chris Gaffney's Mi Vida Loca, is a country-roots disc with a distinct Tex-Mex flair courtesy of the Dave Alvin-penned title cut. Described by some as the "great hope of country music in California," Gaffney is a superb singer-songwriter, who along with Rosie Flores and a few others form the cutting edge of country music. Wielding a piano accordion rather than the usual button model, Gaffney gives the squeezebox a prominent place on this disc.
"My Tex-Mex comes from Flaco, but it also comes from growing up in Tucson," Gaffney says from his home in L.A. "I started out playing accordion when I was 8. Doing the Welk thing you know. In the past few years, though, I've gotten into Flaco and the other Texas players."
Set for a February release is Dressed to Swill, the sophomore album by San Diego's Forbidden Pigs. A rockabilly trio that is best known for its bass-slappin' front man Billy Bacon, the Pigs have a distinct Tex-Mex flavor on their new album. Tunes like "Nogales," Bacon's cracked ode to Arizona's border town, feature Gaffney on accordion. "Nogales"--an Anglo rock/Tex-Mex hybrid--is indicative of the genre's growing influence.
"We've actually been doing Tex-Mex for years," Bacon says from San Diego. "I wrote the song 'Una Mas Cerveza' before there even was a Forbidden Pigs. There's more on this album because Tex-Mex isn't a dirty word anymore."
The last new rock recording to show a Tex-Mex twang is by New Orleans' Iguanas. Led by a two-tenor-sax attack, the Iguanas are an eclectic act whose material varies from sweaty, honkin' rock tunes to "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Tex-Mex-flavored tunes have always been a part of this band's repertoire. But unlike Gaffney and the Forbidden Pigs--who are on indies Hightone and Triple XXX, respectively--the Iguanas are signed to a major label, Margaritaville/MCA. Produced by Justin Neibank, their self-titled debut will hit the racks February 16. To Iguana leader Joe Cabral, including Tex-Mex tunes like "Para Donda Vas" and "Por Mi Camino" on the band's debut was a big deal.
"Being of Spanish descent, I've heard this kind of music all my life," Cabral says. "It's always been part of our live shows. When it came to making the record, we weren't so sure that the label was going to go for it, but it did. I guess that says a lot about where Tex-Mex is today."
There is even a renewed interest in Tex-Mex reissues. For those who want to dig into the music's purest form, Rounder Records' recent four-volume series Conjunto!, Texas-Mexican Border Music is an excellent survey of contemporary performers like Flaco, Steve Jordan and Tony de la Rosa.
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