For singer/guitarist Bryan Contreras, the son of a Mexican father and an Anglo mother, the historical is personal -- especially when it involves the Rio Grande Valley and that snaky river that separates Texas from Mexico.
"I'm intrigued by the whole area of the Valley, the whole idea of two countries coming together," Contreras says. "And it's amazing to see the people that have lived there for generations. It's where I draw a lot of my stories and my energy from."
That energy, along with lonesome prairies, full moons, border-town bleakness and the hope of dreams to come, is evident in Vagabond Mestizos, the debut disc of Contreras's band, St. Jubilee. Consisting entirely of originals (save a surprisingly strong cover of Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road"), its Tex-Mex/blues rock/C&W mix is the sonic culmination of Contreras's vision -- one that, given his life's difficult circumstances, might never have come to fruition.
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Contreras rattles off a litany of problems that plague his family, from battles with drugs and booze to severe mental illness. "My parents were teenagers when they had me, and by 21, they were both strung out on heroin," Contreras offers matter-of-factly, adding that his father served close to 20 years for a variety of drug offenses. "Growing up, there was never a Sunday when my dad was in prison that my brother and I weren't with our grandparents en route to see him on Ellis Unit 1 in Huntsville."
Though born in Houston, Contreras spent much of his childhood shuttling back and forth to McAllen, where he was raised by his grandfather, a tough migrant worker with nine children. Contreras's grandfather worked the fields in Texas, Colorado, Oregon -- wherever a crop needed picking. He also gave Bryan his first musical education, from family sing-alongs and traditional conjuntos to Tejano music and Hank Williams. Later, Contreras would become a fan of Van Morrison and the Eagles. Of the latter he says, "I saw them at Rice Stadium in '81. Still have the T-shirt!"
At age 13, Contreras received a $35 guitar from an uncle. He took the instrument with him to high school when, amazingly, he won a full scholarship for Mexican-American students to New Hampshire's posh Phillips Exeter Academy. The experience away from home further encouraged him to explore his ethnic roots. But until he graduated from the University of Houston in 1996, he hadn't given any thought to music as even a part-time career. Contreras had filled notebooks with lyrics and prose, mainly for his own entertainment. Through a mutual friend, he hooked up with drummer Manny Flores, whose family -- political refugees from El Salvador -- had come to Texas in the early '80s. The two clicked immediately, and St. Jubilee was born.
"We just wanted to have some fun, jam together and play some gigs, real weekend-warrior type of stuff," he says. In 1998, the group was a duo, but Contreras wanted a full band. Two years later, his cousin Jason Youngblood came back into his life. The bassist had just spent a decade with Sunset Heights and was ready to give up the music business altogether, but Contreras's infectious enthusiasm persuaded him to pick up his instrument again. With Marc Turner (ex-Blue Louie, Miss Molly & the Whips) on lead guitar, the quartet rehearsed what would become Vagabond Mestizos.
The record is an amalgamation of all of Contreras's personal and musical tastes. From the hard rock guitar on "Kingdoms of Not Much to Do" and the Allman Brothers licks of "Side Street" to the sing-along border party anthem "Curanderos" and the slow, intense "Hellbound" (with autobiographical lyrics by Contreras's father), it's clear that St. Jubilee wants to touch a lot of bases.
The record's strongest tracks happen to be the ones of which the band is proudest. The Latin-tinged "Hidalgo's Dream" is based on the visions of a 17th-century Spanish missionary who sought to bring not just religions but a more community-based way of life to Native American tribes on what is now the border. "Nobody wanted to go there because it was considered too dangerous," Contreras notes. "But he went, and his vision for the land of the Rio Grande helps drive the record."
And the band's self-described "opus," the story-song "El Paso/Yaqui from Sonora," is a vociferous (if trite) story of a Mexican migrant worker who finds only pain and misery on his way to America. A telenovela worth of tragedy befalls him. By song's end, he opts to go home and leave the Yankee dollar behind.
Contreras admits that the band members put themselves in the hands of producer Greg Hampton when they recorded the disc one weekend at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin. But they weren't prepared for his reaction to the music. Hampton's excitement led him to invite a couple of famous friends to play on the disc: drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Ozzy Osbourne, Rod Stewart) and keyboardist Bill Payne (Little Feat).
In fact, the duo guested on almost every track, leading one to wonder if drummer Flores felt upstaged by having so little input on his band's debut disc. "He wasn't upset at all," says Contreras. "He was like, 'Let's do it!' And he kept asking Carmine all these questions about drumming. We had to keep the two of them apart, or we couldn't get any work done. And Bill Payne was amazing. He would hear a song once, write some charts and do the most incredible stuff on his keyboards."
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Of course, there was another reason for their jubilation. "To be honest, from a marketing standpoint, it helps to have some big names up there," Contreras says.
Now, St. Jubilee hopes to increase its booking schedule over the summer, and break into the San Antonio market. With the recent departure of Turner, they also have to train a new guitar player. So who is the new guy in the band? "It's Mike I don't even remember his last name," Contreras laughs. "We just played our first gig together."
Contreras knows the band's ethnic makeup will bring endless comparisons to Santana and Los Lobos -- despite the fact that St. Jubilee doesn't sound like either of them. In fact, Contreras's musical idol is about as Anglo as you can get: Englishman Eric Burdon, the leader of the '60s British Invasion act the Animals who went on to have a mid-level career experimenting in psychedelia, funk and hardcore R&B.
St. Jubilee weaves songs about the rich cultural history of Texas and Mexico, just another indication that Contreras wants to have both sides covered. "I'm really into this whole dual identity," he says. "Because that's where I'm coming from."