Musical Labels

It's almost a truism that Texas music is hybrid music. Whether we're talking about the jazz-slash-country Texas Swing stylings of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys or the blues-rock mind meld of ZZ Top, Texas artists have not often settled for party-line purity. But even given the state's long history of mix-and-match musical elements, few Texas musicians have poked their fingers into as many musical pies as San Antonio-born Austinite Tish Hinojosa. She's got a record scheduled for release on Rounder in September that she describes as a "real splashy kind of border-music thing." Next year will see the release of a children's album she's wanted to record for years. And at present, Hinojosa is on a promotional and concert tour supporting the Warner Brothers release of Destiny's Gate, a more or less mainstream offering of country, swing, border music and what the radio stations have taken to calling "Adult Alternative" pop.

Destiny's Gate is also the singer's major-label debut, and it follows a long history of label-hopping caused in no small part by an industry that's had a difficult time figuring out just what marketing niches might accommodate Hinojosa's musical pegs.

The label moves began back in 1990. Hinojosa had finished recording Culture Swing for A&M Records, her label at the time. But just as it came time to release the album, A&M dropped Hinojosa.

"It was really a shock to me," she says. "I knew they had to cut their roster, but I just thought that I was flexible enough in my styles and in the kind of stuff I wrote that they would probably keep me."

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They didn't, but the setback didn't discourage Hinojosa. "It was a real struggle," she says, "but it makes you grow. Not that I felt I needed to grow, but I think sometimes when you get shot weird fly balls in life, you learn something about yourself and about your inner strength and you push yourself through things. With me it just had to do with bad timing. I felt musically very ripe at that time. I was writing a lot. It was a hard blow to me, to have me and my songs knocked off and floating around the independent world, looking for a label and being misunderstood. But I think all the talking and all the constantly having to repeat my mission, what I'm about, sometimes in the repetition it's like giving yourself a pep talk. Now I look back, and I like the way things have turned out."

As things turned out, Hinojosa found a home on the independent folk- and roots-oriented Rounder Records, which released a re-recorded Culture Swing in 1992. And it was for Rounder that she recorded Destiny's Gate in an Austin studio before another upheaval -- this one landing on the positive side of the ledger -- led Hinojosa to switch labels again.

One Lionel Conway, president of Madonna's publishing company, Maverick, happened to be watching CMT when Hinojosa's "Closer Still" video aired. Liking what he heard, he went about signing her to a publishing deal and bringing her almost-finished Destiny's Gate masters to the attention of Warner Nashville president Jim Ed Norman. Norman also liked what he heard, and before Hinojosa knew what was happening, he was on the phone offering her a deal. Which made Hinojosa just a wee bit nervous.

"I'm certainly flattered when the head of a record label wants to talk to me about something, but I'm not just going to jump at the sound of the name of a record label. I did that before, and I'm still licking my wounds a little bit from what happened at A&M. Actually, when I got the call from Warner Nashville and Jim Ed, I thought, 'Oh God, I'm going to have to make a choice here.' My gut feeling was: I love this record and whoever's going to sign it is going to have to love it like I do, because I really don't want to change it."

Turns out that Norman felt just as strongly about Hinojosa's tunesmithery and production work as the artist did. "It was just a wild card that brought Jim Ed Norman and me together, and that he got interested enough not only to sign me, but to let me put out the record as I had already recorded it. Which to me was sort of a bold stroke for someone who is the head of a label in Nashville."

It was a bold stroke for a big dog in a music city infamous for its wholesale homogenization, but listening to Destiny's Gate, it's not hard to hear what Norman heard. Hinojosa's voice has a purity that lends fragile authority to her love songs, and she playfully incorporates her multi-culti background into contemporary pop settings. The same range of influence and style that's made Hinojosa's music so hard to classify -- and so difficult to sell -- turns out to be the very strength that set her a step ahead of the Nashville pack. With a Mexican influence steeped in Texas' border towns, Hinojosa has had to fight to escape the "regional music" ghetto so many artists with strong local roots find themselves railroaded into, but now that the industry has opened its arms -- and its checkbooks -- the blessing is no longer disguised.

"In a selfish little way, I feel really lucky, because I can wear two hats at once. It's not like I was raised in a little town on the border somewhere. I was actually a city girl raised in San Antonio. I can use the Texas or I can use the San Antonio or I can use my parents -- the fact that they were from Mexico and didn't speak English -- as things that keep me rooted to my region. Our home life was very close to our culture. But, we were city kids. So one part of me is essentially an American kid that was exposed to everything -- TV, radio -- like anybody else. Only I feel like I got a stereo image that I can jump from one side to the other whenever I feel like it."

That stereo image comes through loud and clear on Destiny's Gate, wherein Hinojosa jumps from the trumpet-laden Spanish-language "Esperate (Wait for Me)" to the country-as-it-gets "Looking for Love in the Pouring Rain" to the punchy swing of "I'm Not Through Loving You Yet." Hinojosa works with a broad palette, and Destiny's Gate, more than any album she's recorded yet, blends her many colors.

"I didn't know I was soaking in all this stuff, but I was. Those influences come out a lot more on this record. The part of me that extended out further than my region has always been there, and I've just gotten a chance to showcase it more on this record."

Tish Hinojosa performs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 14 at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington, 861-9365. $12.50-$15.

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