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Nashville Scene A Different Tune

Latino country singer Rick Trevino reemerges, comes to terms with his heritage

By Beverly Keel

MARCH 6, 2000:  It took losing a record deal for country singer Rick Trevino to find himself. And after a year of self-discovery, Trevino has emerged a different man, one who now embraces the Latin heritage that he tried to escape for most of his life.

In 1993, Trevino became the first nationally renowned Hispanic country singer since the 1970s, when fellow Texans Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez topped the charts. His first album, Dos Mundos on Sony Discos, was comprised of country songs sung in Spanish and was promoted to the Tejano market. By the time that album was released, he already had a Music Row record deal in place.

Signed to Sony Nashville at age 19, Trevino launched his career during country's boom, when hat acts would've been a dime a dozen, had they all not been selling gold or better. Despite his heritage, Trevino's music and image fit right into the assembly-line product coming out of Music Row. Unlike Emilio, who led country music's ill-fated assault on the Hispanic market in the early 1990s, Trevino was--and is--a full-fledged country singer, not a Tejano singer who was trying to lure his audience into the country arena.

"When I was signed, they were looking for talent and for someone who could pull it off in the studio and live," Trevino says. "I didn't have a musical direction. As far as having an inner identity, I wanted to be like my heroes--George Strait, Keith Whitley, and Garth Brooks. Some of [the music] I was happy with, some of it I wasn't. It was always a struggle. I had to make a decision whether I was going to stick to my guns or be a team player."

Trevino's self-titled English debut album went gold and spawned the Top 5 hit "She Can't Say I Didn't Cry." Looking for the Light, his 1995 album, sold about 400,000 and contained the Top 10 hit "Bobbie Ann Mason." That was followed by 1996's Learning As You Go, another 400,000-seller that saw both the title track and "Running Out of Reasons" reach No. 1.

In addition, Trevino recorded all of his albums with Spanish vocals, allowing the label to target his music to the Tejano market. Although he didn't have time to promote his Spanish-language releases, they each sold 50,000 to 65,000 copies. He has always maintained a high profile in the Southwest, especially Texas.

After the success of Learning As You Go, the label pressured Trevino to churn out another album to capitalize on the industry buzz surrounding him. Trevino cut seven songs with producers Doug Johnson and Steve Buckingham, but then dropped the project because he wasn't satisfied. He teamed up with producer Don Cook and recorded nine more songs, including "Only Lonely Me," which was released as a single in 1998 but found little success.

During this time, Trevino also began recording an LP with Los Super Seven, a group of Mexican roots-rockers that included David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas from Los Lobos, Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, Ruben Ramos, and Flaco Jimenez. "Los Super Seven changed my life," Trevino says. "I had to come to terms with my heritage. To me, there were a lot of negative thoughts and memories I would always associate with Tex-Mex music. Once I did that album, it was like coming to terms with myself musically and personally."

Trevino's father was a Tejano musician who had toured with Little Joey and Neto Perez and the Originals. During the 1960s, Tex-Mex bands played not only traditional accordion-driven music, but also big band arrangements with horns and saxophones. "They covered Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears tunes and Top 40 stuff, and that's what I listened to a lot," he says. "I couldn't stand listening to the Mexican stuff because I was too young to understand it. I didn't get it."

At age 5, his family moved from Houston to Austin, leaving behind a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood and relocating to a predominantly white one. The family soon began assimilating into Anglo culture. "In Austin, it was like the Brady Bunch, and then we would go back to Houston for Christmas, and it was a completely different thing, which I liked.

"The older I get, the more I've wanted to embrace my culture, especially with the music, because that's where it started for me. I just didn't want to have anything to do with it [before] because a lot of my friends were cowboys and Anglos, and they didn't understand Tex-Mex music. Actually, it was kind of the opposite. I would discriminate; they couldn't have cared less."

In January 1999, Trevino shared in Los Super Seven's Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance, an irony that wasn't lost on him. Two months later, however, everything changed when Sony dropped him. "It was terrifying," he says. "It was like being fired. It was just a blow to me. I remember going to my little boy's room and telling my wife, and I just felt awful."

After recovering emotionally, Trevino was overcome with a desire to immerse himself in music. For the past few years, he had only been surrounded by songs pitched to him from Nashville publishers. "I wanted to listen to everything from old country to new country, from Guy Clark and Ray Price to Jerry Jeff Walker and Butch Hancock."

After essentially woodshedding for a year, Trevino developed his own musical voice and reemerged with a new sound, one that intermingles a Latin style with contemporary country. While the steel guitar and fiddle remain, he has added accordion, bajo sexto guitar, and flamenco guitar. "The music still has a decidedly mainstream country sound to it," says Dan Goodman, Trevino's manager. "First and foremost, it's a mainstream country sound, but the Latin infusion makes it very distinctive."

Trevino unveiled his new repertoire at a January showcase in Austin, which was attended by about six Nashville labels, many of whom were likely surprised that Trevino looked and sounded nothing like they had expected. Gone were the cowboy hat, Wranglers, and massive belt buckles; Trevino climbed onstage in a simple pullover and black pants.

"It was just wonderful, but it was scary because it was the first time to present the new me," Trevino says. "I was terrified because I was thinking, 'What are people going to think about me getting up without a hat on?' That's how I had presented myself for the last eight years, and it's hard to change sometimes."

Obviously, his goal is to land another record deal. "The year that I had to reflect was a great year, because I got to look back at the music I recorded in the past and the music I want to do in the future," Trevino says. "I realized I want to do something completely different. I believe it all starts with my Hispanic heritage.

"I know it will work, I believe in it. I'm passionate about it."

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