In the early 1990s, a young Austin-born Texas A&M student and part-time country singer named Rick Treviño got the break of which every would-be Nashville darling dreams: discovery, major-label deal, stardom. By the tender age of 25, he had already scored big with three albums for Columbia, all of which were straight-ahead C&W sung in Treviño's -- but not his father's -- native English. Hit singles such as "Honky Tonk Crowd," "She Can't Say I Didn't Cry" and "Doctor Time" became standards in the mid-1990s. Save for the Hispanic surname, Treviño seemed like just another hat in a sea of Stetsons.
But recently Treviño has reinvented himself, polishing his always-present Spanish-as-a-second-language skills while embracing his Latino musical heritage. A key indication of this cultural shift was Treviño's surprise inclusion in Los Super Seven in 1998. That role was expanded when Treviño sang lead on two tracks of what might prove to be this year's finest recording in any language, Los Super Seven's Canto. Produced by Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, the album features several fellow Wolves and a diverse range of outstanding singers (including Raul Malo, Ruben Ramos, Susana Baca and the incomparable Caetano Veloso). Collectively, they interpret choice material -- some new and much old -- from North, Central and South America. Every track is a gem.
Now there's Treviño's Mi Son ("My Sound" or "My Song"), also produced by Berlin and utilizing many of the same players from the Canto sessions (including arranger and keyboard genius Alberto Salas). Like the Los Super Seven project, the disc reveals that there's far more to this former Aggie than the narrow confines of the Nashville sound.
Recently turned 30, Treviño, the son of a Tejano musician, is exploring his roots and discovering a deep well of soulful material in the process. However, as is the case with Canto, the points of reference reach from the Texas Hill Country through the Mexican Sierras and clear to the Argentine pampas. Comprising nine tracks in Spanish and one in English, it all makes for a wonderful tour. And Treviño proves a worthy guide.
The album begins with six bars of intensely robust acoustic guitar work that lead into Treviño's deft vocalizing on "El Gustito" ("The Little Pleasure"). It's accented brilliantly by folk-style percussion. The lyrics celebrate the tierra santa (holy land) of the Huasteca region of Mexico, the place -- the lyrics tell us in translation -- where God created his nest.
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The mood and locus shift abruptly but effectively with the subsequent track, "El Tira y Jala" ("The Push and Grind"). This pulsating number of Cuban origin speaks of terminal unemployment and the possibility of finding work in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Treviño's inspired singing is complemented by an all-male vocal ensemble that shouts out its lines with gleeful power. Solos on piano (by Salas) and tres (Ramon Stagnaro) evoke the recently popularized sounds of Ruben Gonzalez and Compay Segundo, respectively, of Buena Vista Social Club fame.
"Vuelvo al Sur" ("Returning to the South") is a sparse but gorgeous ballad composed by Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla and filmmaker/ playwright Fernando Solanas. Producer Berlin knew the piece from the 1994 Caetano Veloso album Fina Estampa and introduced it to Treviño, who calls it "one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard." His singing does it justice, slowly articulating the lyrics in a meditative style befitting the finest romantic poetry.
Other tracks include a rollicking number previously recorded by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades ("Ojos," which includes tasteful accompaniment on vibes by Ruben Estrada Sr.), a duet with the graceful Martha Gonzalez (on the bolero "Vanidad") and a rootsy tune reminiscent of early Los Lobos ("Cupido").
Mi Son concludes with Treviño chording an acoustic guitar and singing in English. "Long Goodbye" is a pure C&W waltz, even employing the washboard bass of old-timey string bands. Ultimately, its inclusion makes sense, reminding us where Treviño first established himself as a professional, a style he says he will never fully abandon. At this stage of his career, he seems to be a man comfortably at home in two worlds.