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San Antonio, Baby

Raul Malo has some choice words for the music business on new album Sinners & Saints.
George Gutierrez

Born and raised in Miami, Raul Malo may be Cuban-American, but he's got a strong jones for late Texan Doug Sahm. When Malo's band the Mavericks broke hard onto the mainstream country scene in the '90s, Malo remembers most critics "either compared us to the Sir Douglas Quintet or Roy Orbison.

"But I never got to meet Doug until I was at my first Grammy show," the singer laughs from his home in Nashville. "I made a last-minute dash to the restroom, and there's Ray Benson and Doug, and he turns and says, 'Hey, Raul' just like we'd grown up together. One of the coolest guys ever.

"What happens to musicians, I guess, when you do music and it somehow channels somebody else's stuff, there's a connecting vibe," says Malo. "And I felt like Doug was genuinely connected to our music. Ray, too. Ironically I'm still working with Ray."

For his latest project, Malo brought the basic tracks he recorded at his home studio in Nashville to Benson's Bismeaux Studio in Austin for final embellishments and mixing. Sinners & Saints, which drops Oct. 5, owes much to the sounds of the Quintet. In fact, "San Antonio Baby" sounds like it was written for — if not by — Sahm.

"I was so glad we could get Augie Meyers to add that authentic Quintet Vox Continental organ sound," gushes Malo, obviously a true fan. "And the accordion is played by another San Antonio ace, young Michael Guerra, who has worked with Doug's son.

"We're hoping that tune might become a regional hit," says Malo. "Augie nailed that signature Sam-the-Sham organ sound, and Michael is just an amazing addition. He's coming on the road with us this tour."

Malo was introduced to Guerra via country singer Rick Trevino, and the two first played together in February at San Antonio roots-music venue Casbeers. Malo invited Guerra to sit in on a solo acoustic show, the singer notes, and the chemistry was immediate.

"Some of my songs are simple — like 'All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,' it's just two chords — but some of them are much more musical, but he nailed them with no rehearsal," says Malo. "He's the real deal."

Country music might seem an odd choice for a Spanish-speaking Cuban-American, but Malo recalls a childhood surrounded by all kinds of music.

"My dad was into rock and roll, rockabilly and bands like the Champs, who really preceded the Sir Douglas Quintet. He also loved hard country like Buck Owens and Haggard, and of course great Latino singers like Vicente Fernandez," Malo recalls. "I loved all that stuff.

"Then my mom played piano and she loved opera," he adds. "Plus we listened to all kinds of Latin music. Growing up where I did and the way I did, if I liked a certain song, I honestly never thought, 'Where did it come from?' Geography wasn't nearly as important as the music."

Sinners & Saints certainly reflects Malo's musical eclecticism. The opening title track combines Flamenco ­zarzuela style with surf guitar and searing Latin trumpet. It takes 90 seconds for Malo's voice to break the musical trance.

"That song was so much fun to compose because it has no structure, no verses, no chorus, nothing repeats. I really hadn't figured out what I wanted to do on that one until I heard Jamison (Sevits) running through his trumpet warm-ups," says Malo. "We had the recorder on, and I played that trumpet part back and thought immediately, 'This is how I want this thing to begin.'"

While Malo's vocal style has most often been compared to Roy Orbison's, he says the singer who has influenced him the most is Elvis Presley.

"The first live concert I ever went to, my parents took me to see Elvis," Malo remembers. "He became my hero because he could sing anything — not just rock and roll, not just ballads. It seemed like his voice was limitless, that he could do it all. More than anyone, Elvis opened my musical ears."

Typical of many country hit makers, Malo has seen the highs and lows of Nashville and the mainstream music business. On another Quintet-style Tex-Mex rocker, "Superstar" — featuring Doug Sahm's eldest son and current Texas Tornado Shawn Sahm — Malo captures the fickle nature of the business and many of the people in it.

Nobody wants to know you when you're down and out

Flavor of the month is what it's all about

"Partly personal, partly not, but certainly tongue-in-cheek," Malo cracks. "When I wrote that one, I was thinking about Rodney Crowell. Ten No. 1 hits and he can't get played anywhere. If you've had some success and been in this business very long, it's very likely you've felt like that."

Several of the album's tracks are sung in Spanish. But Malo agrees it is almost unthinkable that mainstream country radio would embrace a song with Spanish-language parts in it today.

"I remember my dad turning up Freddy Fender's 'Before the Last Teardrop Falls' in the car when I was a kid. He was so proud that a Latino was not only able to sing in Spanish on the radio, but that the song made it to No. 1," Malo recalls.

"It was like a validation for an immigrant like my dad, that America really was this great, accepting melting pot. It says a lot about how polarized the country is right now that there's no way radio would take a chance on Freddy's single today."

Malo tells of a friend who has "a song called something stupid like 'I Want My Enchiladas Back'" performing on the Grand Ole Opry.

"He was talking in the dressing rooms about performing that song on Sean Hannity's show," he says. "And really, this guy's not a bad guy, but he has no clue how offensive that song is to so many people. Stuff like that from artists makes me really sad.

"I remember our radio guy coming to us back when the Mavericks had 'All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down' out and saying we just needed one more station to add us and we'd be in the Top 10, which would have been a huge deal for us," Malo adds.

"He said he'd found a guy who wanted to add us, but the guy didn't like anything 'Mexican' like accordions in the music he played. So our guy asks if I'm okay with removing the accordion from the mix," says Malo, incredulity filling his voice.

"Well, I go off on a bleepity-bleep-bleep tirade about this racist bleepity-bleep. But in the end, once I'd settled down, I just told him there's stuff he has to do to do his job, and he should just do it and not tell me. And sure enough, that racist guy put us into the Top 10 for the first time.

"That's one of the reasons I especially like playing South Texas so much," Malo notes. "No one's afraid of a little accordion."

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