It’s 7:30 a.m, at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas. I’m shuffling down the hallway to the breakfast area in search of hot biscuits and gravy. My partner, Frank Cuellar, is making a waffle.
“So, what time do we need to be in Laredo?” I ask, adding yet another package of cream to my coffee.
“I told Edgar we’d call him around 1:00.” Frank says, carefully distributing butter to each well in his waffle.
“And San Antonio?”
“Ram knows we’re hitting Laredo first, and said he’s available all evening. How long of a drive is it to San Antonio?”
“I think it’s about three hours, but let me look it up.” A quick look at Google Maps tells me I’m not too far off. “Check out’s at eleven, so we should make it to Laredo by about 1:30.”
It’s a conversation we’ve had many times as we have traveled all over South Texas interviewing Tejano and Conjunto musicians. This was the last day of a trip that also included stops in Houston, Refugio, and of course, Corpus Christi. Our subjects ranged from a group of kids who play Conjunto to a mogul who owns his own record label. Today we’re headed to interview veteran Conjunto musician Edgar Vasquez and Tejano superstar Ram Herrera, and then we’re finally headed home.
With every interview, I can’t help but look back at the path I took to get here. It all started in Tulsa with a fateful evening listening to KMOD…
In the Beginning
I’m a Tulsa native and 1996 graduate of Jenks High School. I have always loved all kinds of music. As a kid, I listened to my grandfather’s Big Band favorites and my uncle John’s 96 Degrees in the Shade and Traffic albums. My uncle Dana got me hooked on The Beach Boys, The Doors, Van Halen, and took me to see The Stray Cats at the Brady Theatre when I was in kindergarten. The next day, I failed miserably at trying to explain the kickass concert to the kid next to me who was just learning to tie his shoes.
But it was riding around in the car with my mom, listening to KMOD that changed my life forever. By the time I was fourteen, I had heard thousands of songs on that station. But one evening, I heard something that spun my head around, turned my guts inside out, and started a fire deep inside my heart. I’ll never forget it, as we turned the corner at 61st and Memorial, one song ended and the first few bars of next one completely swept me away. “Mom, who the hell was THAT?” The answer was the one and only Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a song called “Empty Arms,” from his posthumously released album The Sky Is Crying. Suffice it to say, when we got home, I scraped up all of the change I could find and demanded to be taken to Musicland at Woodland Hills the next evening to buy it.
What followed could be easily classified as an “obsession.” Because of his short life, his catalog was tragically abbreviated. I bought everything about him I could: albums, magazines, everything. I started religiously listening to John Henry’s Sunday night Smokehouse Blues program on KMOD, and learning to play guitar. After about a year, I learned that a new Stevie Ray Vaughan biography was published. Written by Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford, Caught in the Crossfire gave me everything I craved and more. I learned about my idol’s life, who he listened to, where he played, and most importantly, where he lived. Despite growing up in south Dallas, Vaughan really blossomed when he came to Austin. The more I read about the Live Music Capital of the World, the more I fell deeply, irretrievably, in love.
I was a sophomore in high school at this point, looking to the future, and wondering where I would go to college. As someone who was always kind of odd and never really felt comfortable in the conservative confines of my hometown, I yearned for a place where I could blossom. My first two visits to Austin didn’t disappoint, but I couldn’t afford the tuition to the University of Texas, so that dream would have to wait. But deep down, I knew it was where I belonged and that music would play a major part of my life.
It took me over a decade, but I finally got to Austin after stops in Norman, Oklahoma, Laramie, Wyoming, and Denver, Colorado. Nearly fifteen years after Texas Blues got a hold of me, I lost my heart again. This time, to music I never knew I would love.
Enter Frank Cuellar, Austin native and Tejano music DJ and aficionado. Though we had just met, it was as if I had known him all my life. As we got to know more about each other, I began listening to his music and asking him questions. I don’t speak Spanish, so I focused on the music itself. I began to dissect the sound and pick out the different parts that piqued my curiosity. Little by little, the band names and sounds became familiar, and soon I was able to easily distinguish between Tejano, Conjunto, and Mexican styles like Banda and Norteño.
A quick description of the two genres goes something like this: Conjunto is to Tejano as Blues is to Rock and Traditional Country is to Contemporary (Nashville) Country. Conjunto’s history goes back to the late 19th century, when the music of Mexican, Czech, and German immigrants collided, as they all worked the land on south Texas farms and ranches. Accordions and polkas were added to classic Mexican folk music to create a danceable sound popular with the working class, especially the field workers. Tejano is the next generation, blending Conjunto with another style called Orquesta, which was heavily influenced by Big Band and Jazz. It has continued to evolve, borrowing sounds from Rock, R&B, Country, and many other genres.
Today, this music is suffering. The masters and legends are aging, and there are only a few new performers in line to carry the torch. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a full-time musician in this industry. A handful of terrestrial Tejano radio stations remain. The multinational record labels like CBS abandoned it. Gone are the big glorious dancehalls where the music thrived. Wal-Mart mixes Tejano CD’s in with Mexican music in many places, and there are only a few independent record shops that specialize in it. It survives through internet radio stations, social networking, and recording software, which has allowed for the rise of independent record labels and home recording studios.
The more I learned about the music, the more I wanted to know even more. Unfortunately, it’s heavily underdocumented. I couldn’t learn about Tejano and Conjunto the same way I learned about Blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are only a couple of books, no magazines print stories about it, and there was hardly anything written on the internet.
Rancho Alegre Radio
By trade, I am a web developer. I suggested that Frank create a website to showcase his extensive music catalog for prospective clients to help him get some more DJ gigs. After a couple of years of building the catalog, we added a music player and a blog to the website. While not as many DJ gigs materialized because of our efforts as I would have liked, we were gaining a small, loyal following among passionate, hard-core fans who loved the music and content on our site.
Then, on my birthday in 2010, Frank suffered six tiny strokes at once. Six weeks later, he underwent the first of four major eye surgeries for diabetic retinopathy, which left him partially blind, depressed, and bed-ridden for a couple of months. During that time, he kept his sanity by listening to the radio and music collection. He thought about the healing power of music and what it must be like for people with similar, but permanent, conditions.
In early 2011, as Frank was at his lowest point, Conjunto lost legendary accordionist Ruben Vela, which is why we are in Corpus Christi this morning. Upon learning of his passing, Frank realized that time is running out when it comes to documenting the stories of legends like Vela. Their music keeps their memories alive, yes, but there is so much more to learn about them, and to pass on to future generations of music lovers.
With no formal training, a very limited budget, and rented equipment, we began our quest. At first, we were just going to interview the artists when they came to Austin. The conversations we recorded were good, but after our first trip to the Rio Grande Valley, we found that we got more intimate, complete, and meaningful stories by traveling to places where they were comfortable. Frank’s interview skills, his innate curiosity and ability to speak English, Spanish, and Spanglish, set the artists at ease within a couple of questions. We realized we were recording music history, in the artists’ own words.
Sometimes it’s hard to get the stories. On another notable trip to Corpus Christi, I saw just how far Frank had come as an interviewer. We went to talk with an artist named Ricky Smith, who, with his band La Movida, brought hard rock-style electric guitar to Tejano music. Several years ago, Ricky too, suffered a stroke, but he agreed to talk to us anyway. Although he has made progress, his speech continues to be severely limited to where he cannot construct sentences. However, Ricky is very organized and had his entire biography and discography written out for us, allowing Frank to tailor the conversation to yes and no questions that Ricky could easily answer.
Today, we have conducted nearly 60 interviews with titans like Ramon Ayala, Mingo Saldivar, Roberto Pulido, Little Joe, David Lee Garza, and Freddie Martinez; pioneers like Chano Cadena, Agapito Zuñiga, Rene Joslin, and Gilberto Perez; up and coming groups and artists like Crystal N Crew, Mickey Mendoza, Conjunto Romo, Noel Hernandez, and so many more. We then produce the interviews, along with selections from the artists’ catalogs, and post them to our website. Then they make the rounds via social media with other Tejano and Conjunto fans all over the world.
After getting to know the Conjunto artists, we decided to bring them to Austin for a three-day festival in February 2012, an hugely successful event that has helped revive interest in Conjunto music among existing fans and attracted new fans as well. From there, we were featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and enjoyed coverage from print media as well.
Back to the Future
After finishing up our interview with Ram, we’re headed back to Austin. There’s a goofy prank call bit on Howard Stern. Frank laughs, and turns down the volume.
Crossing his arms, he asks aloud, almost rhetorically, “Do you think this will be worth it some day?”
“Do you mean, will we make money off of it one day? If that’s your question, I don’t think we will. That’s not the point, anyway.”
“No,” he says, softly and thoughtfully, “I mean, will people remember what we’re doing? Will they appreciate it? Will it make a difference? All the time we spend preparing, driving, waiting, rescheduling, all that. Just to record us talking to someone about their career.”
I think for a moment, and reflect on why he is asking. We frequently ask ourselves if it’s all worth it. And the answer is always “yes.” Always. But right now, he is asking because he is a man who has lost most of what he used to be, except for music. Since his strokes and eye surgeries, he has had to rebuild his life and is struggling to find a new career. Just as he was coming out of his depression and beginning to recover, he was laid off from his job at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. After spending his life working physical jobs in warehouses, he has learned that he simply can’t do them anymore. He gets vertigo. He can’t drive, because his eyes are painfully sensitive to light and he has holes in his field of vision. He’s weak and frequently nauseous. He has become too familiar with his own mortality, which can either inspire a person or push them deeper into darkness. With so many health problems, he doesn’t believe he will last much longer.
I tell him, “Yes. One day, it will definitely be worth it.”
“I hope it makes someone happy when they listen to it,” he says, before drifting off to sleep somewhere around New Braunfels.
Talk like this inevitably makes us think of what we have in our hands. Audio recordings of massively popular Texas musicians, telling the stories of their careers and lives in their own words and own voice. Some of them had never been interviewed, and if they had, it wasn’t recorded. Given the rarity of the recordings and their importance to the history of Texas music, we’re looking at giving them to a university program or museum for proper cataloging and preservation.
Turning up the radio, I cruise home, thinking about what I have to do tomorrow at my day job, and beginning to mentally construct a plan for our next Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival in February 2013. Thoughts come and go as I look at the lights of the Austin skyline glittering in the night, enjoying the uncertainty and spontaneity of it all.