West Coast Meets South of Texas
By Jim Caligiuri
SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: At the most basic level, Los Super Seven is a Mexican-American all-star band made up of Tex-Mex legends Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Austin-based country star Rick Trevino, local Tejano superstar Ruben Ramos, and Texas icon and rocker Joe Ely. However, the story of how this group came together and produced one of the most delightful musical celebrations of 1998 is not only one that revolves around Austin and its abundant music scene, it's a vivid illustration of the rare musical harmony the community can sometimes possess.
The tale begins during last year's South By Southwest conference when Dan Goodman, a Nashville-based artist manager who works with Trevino and David Ball, along with Paula Batson, Vice President of Public Relations for N2K, an online music entertainment company, held a private event on the patio of Congress Avenue Mexican food eatery and SXSW place to be seen, Las Manitas. It was a songwriters-in-the-round affair that featured Trevino, Ely, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, and Rosie Flores swapping songs and stories. It was much talked about afterwards and deemed such a success that it was repeated this past March at SXSW '98.
"We got the bug for the whole border music thing," remembers Goodman about the first year's gathering. "Nashville journalist Rick Clark and I went down to San Antonio and we did some research on music. We went to El Norteño, the oldest Hispanic record store in San Antonio, and dug through the bins there. We holed up in a hotel room for about a week and listened to a lot of songs and put together compilation tapes."
Acknowledging that he was mostly unfamiliar with the rich musical legacy he and Clark discovered in the Alamo city, Goodman says that's also what drew him to the project. "I just thought that this was music that was being neglected," he explains. "When I started digging a little deeper, I found it pretty fascinating. It was real spiritual and had a lot of musical integrity. I thought it would be a great project for music junkies."
Goodman, who is credited as executive producer of Los Super Seven, then began rounding up artists to take part in his project, passing them tapes of songs he thought might suit them. He cites the participation of Austin's Joe Ely in particular, the only non-Hispanic musician of the project's featured performers, as being important, because he thought it appropriate to have an Anglo artist whose music reflects border influences. Just as important was the involvement of some former clients of Goodman's.
"Los Lobos were important, because we didn't want this to be a Tex-Mex album," says Goodman. "We wanted it to be more diverse than that, and to reflect other styles of music -- both border music and music from the interior of Mexico. It was also an opportunity for the artists who performed on the album to do something outside of the stuff that they normally record. It was an opportunity to record something they probably heard their parents or grandparents listen to and to try and make it a little bit more accessible.
Goodman says most of the songs that made the album cut are as obscure to the neophyte as they are to those more well-versed in this musical realm, citing Rick Trevino's chosen mariachi tunes as the most current and well-known. Lobo Rosas, on the other hand, brought in songs he had written.
"We didn't stick to any rules or anything," reveals Goodman. "We just tried to make good music and not really be too judgmental. We wanted to capture the spirit of the original records, but sonically and otherwise, make them more accessible to the current day."
Crucial to the wrangling involved with a project involving high-caliber artists of different disciplines was Steve Berlin, keyboard and sax player for Los Lobos, who in recent years has also become well-known for his production work with acts such as the Tragically Hip, Crash Test Dummies, Faith No More, and Dave Alvin. Even when Berlin came aboard, however, the whole endeavor was far from set.
"I guess a different label had been approached and they got cold feet about it," says Berlin. "I thought, frankly, that the project had died. Then, Dan came back and said he'd gotten another label involved. So, the project had been around for a while, but it took RCA to get involved to make it go."
RCA Nashville to be more precise, an unexpected choice for a label that is more familiar with working commercial country artists like Clint Black and Alabama.
"I had that exact same thought," Berlin confides. "How could a country label even think they could understand this? But to their great credit, they've been just amazingly supportive. They're committed to and are really behind it. It's hard to be a trailblazer in Nashville, but they've shown me that they're willing to follow an artist's sentiment wherever it leads."
"Joe Galante was very intrigued with this project," adds Goodman, naming the RCA label head as a prime supporter of Los Super Seven. "I guess we all like to do something outside of our day-to-day routine."
With plenty of potential material, artist commitments, a producer, and a supportive label, April '98 found many of the principals involved gathered at Cedar Creek Recording, a studio here in Austin.
"We had no idea what was going to happen going into it," recalls Berlin. "As producer there wasn't really any way to prepare, because we really didn't know who was going to play what, what songs we were going to do. Basically, it as as loose a concept going into it as I've ever experienced. I like to do some homework before I start, but in this case, we knew virtually nothing. We were counting on the musicians to show up with everything they wanted to do."
"My job was to make sure the project didn't drive off the tracks at any point."
Not surprisingly, with a roster the caliber of Los Super Seven's, the camaraderie among the artists, plus a guest appearance from Doug Sahm and assists from some of Texas' best musicians, including bajo sexto player Max Baca, accordionist Joel Guzman, and the mariachi group Campanos de America, Berlin's work was made that much easier. Aiding the process further, Berlin's bandmates, Rosas and Hidalgo, were the first musicians to arrive on the scene.
"It was pretty enjoyable," says Rosas. "Especially when Freddie came in -- and Flaco. Freddy said, 'I have these songs that I remember from when I was a kid.'"
In addition to "Un Lunes por la Manana" ("One Monday Morning"), a song Fender says dates back to the Mexican Revolution, the Texas border legend also brought "Piensa En Mi" ("Think of Me") to the group as performed by Tex-Mex pioneer Lydia Mendoza. "She was very much one of my idols from back in the Forties," remembers Fender. "When I listen to a song like that, which focuses on the memories of my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and how our lives were back then."
One of the unforeseen aspects of the recording process was the difference between the Californians and the Texans.
"[The songs] weren't done the typical way we record them over here," explains Ruben Ramos. "On only one song did we use drums, it was mostly stringed instruments. It's more modern and different than you would normally hear, but I like it. The spirit of the music is still there, but it has a different flavor."
"The record definitely has a West Coast meets south of Texas kind of feel," he says. "Dave and I brought in more of the regional Mexican folk music ideas. The Texas guys brought in their style of music, so we kind of combined them. There are totally different styles of music there. It's got the flavor of a Tex-Mex record, but not all of it is like that.
"Like 'La Morena,' for example, the song that Ruben is singing. That song is from Vera Cruz. It's called Orocho music. Mexican folk music has violins, drums, has all kinds of stuff that a lot of people don't know about. Each of the different regions or states of Mexico has their certain different style of music. Most people think mariachi music is the only music from Mexico, and it's part of it, but it's not truly representative of all the music from there."
Local country music star Rick Trevino might be considered an odd choice as one of Los Super Seven -- being a decade or two (or three or four) younger than the rest of the artists involved -- but Nashville's perennial up-and-comer also brings some unexpected frankness to the story.
"The main reason I got into it was because I was the type of guy who never liked Mexican music," admits Trevino."Never. My dad was a Tejano musician. He toured with Little Joe [y la Familia] and a couple of others. He was the type that would get extremely melancholy and sentimental when it came time to listen to Mexican music. I have very negative associations with Mexican music and my family, hence I never wanted to be a part of it. It was just part of my life that I wanted to put behind me.
"But it was right after my son was born in August of 1997. Everything that I'd done had been strictly country and I started working on my fourth album and it had taken a while to get that going. Somehow, the older I got and after I had a son, I thought I really needed to become more aware of my cultural identity. To me, when we started talking about this project I felt like I was really facing the music for the first time.
"Dan played me this song that my dad used to crank up all the time on our stereo that would embarrass me when I had friends over. The song was 'Margarita' [performed by Jimenez and Rosas on the album], and my dad would play that song over and over again. I realized then that I really loved that song.
"I've done everything in my musical life to stay away from Mexican roots music -- the only time I ever listen to it is at family functions. I've always liked Ruben Ramos and folks like the Latin Breed, but I'm a pretty good example of a third or fourth generation Mexican-American that didn't know much about their cultural heritage growing up. I don't speak Spanish fluently, but I'm very proud to be a part of the record, to work with that group was very different for me and I loved it.
"Especially," he adds with a laugh, "since Las Manitas catered every night of the recording."
On the surface, Joe Ely was perhaps the only project participant even further removed from the Hispanic roots Trevino talks about. Then again, Ely has lived much of his life on the Texas/Mexico border, which explains his choosing Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" as his featured vocal turn.
"I thought that the whole thing revolved around songs about the border," explains Ely. "And 'Deportee,' I've never recorded it, but I've known it forever. And I kind of just tossed it to Cesar and David and they really liked the idea. Everybody thought it fit in there. The main thing was that the songs had to be stories of the border. I think they just did a beautiful job."
Indeed, with its stark imagery of Mexican farm workers and the hard times they endure, Ely's contribution fits in perfectly with the simple yet glowing nature of the entire album.
"The way they put it together made for a really good record," says Ely with pride. "I've listened to it dozens of times. It was the most played CD on our tour bus while we were out on the road. I really feel privileged to be asked to be a part of it, because it just wasn't one of those things where somebody gets a bunch of artists together to do a tribute record. This was really special."
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