Houston blues musician Tony Vega knows all about being better known in Europe than he is here at home. "It's always like that, isn't it?" he says with a laugh. "The thing about playing at home is that these people saw us grow up. From when we were terrible and we were still learning. So that's how they remember us; no matter how much better we've gotten, no matter how much we've grown, we're still those little kids who couldn't play. In Europe, those are new eyes that have never seen us and are more willing to accept us for what we are now, and not remember us for what we used to be."
Tall, slim and as good-looking as a blues musician can be without losing credibility, Vega sits listening to his latest CD, Then & Now, an 11-song collection that was released in April in Europe and has just become available in the United States. "When we wanted to take a new CD with us to Europe on this last tour, my wife suggested that we make a compilation. I didn't really like the idea. I'm still a new artist -- I've only been around for nine years -- and so for me to do a compilation was kind of cheesy, I thought. But then we decided to add three new studio tracks and I thought, 'Okay, maybe.' Plus, our first two records aren't available anymore. This is the perfect way for those people who don't have the first two CDs to get some of those recordings.
"Then when I was putting it together, I was thinking, 'Wow, this is my favorite record!' If people don't know me, this is a good snapshot of the last nine years. I'm really pleased with how it came out. It really is a time capsule of my music."
The music continues in the background while Vega talks. He doesn't listen to himself very often, he admits. "It's kinda like looking at yourself in the mirror and you see all the imperfections, the things that no one else sees. Like all you see is how big your nose is...instead of focusing on what other people might think is attractive. It's like that for me when I hear myself play."
The judges at the recent Memphis Blues Society Battle of the Blues didn't seem to notice any imperfections; they awarded the Tony Vega Band first place. "That was wild, a band from Texas winning a blues competition in Memphis! When we were over there, everyone said how we have that greasy, Texas sound. And to us, it's just normal. Heck, sometimes we think we don't sound greasy enough! But that's from growing up watching all those great musicians here.
"I look at our history here in Houston, and I'm just in awe of these guys. Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Albert Collins, Little Joe Washington, Lightnin' Hopkins. It's amazing being from around here and having that kind of legacy, being surrounded by that kind of talent and genius. I'm always humbled by that.
"And if that's not enough, playing the kind of music that we play, sometimes we're just background music. Sometimes you can't even hear us. We're a jukebox, that's really humbling. And then, in Texas, man, you can't even count on being the most talented guitar player in the room."
Vega can usually be sure he's the only Latino in the room, though. "I'm a Texan and I do Texas music," he says. "I grew up listening to Los Tigres del Norte with my dad. It's so part of who I am, but then again, it's so a part of Texas, too. Corridos, and mariachis, all of that is part of what we have here.
"I think of Alejandro Escovedo. When I see his name, I don't think, 'Hey, great, a beaner!' I just think, 'Wow, it's Alejandro Escovedo.' I also think of David Gonzalez, who is another singer-songwriter from here. And both of them are doing music that you wouldn't call Latino, but I don't think either of them tries to say, 'Hey, I'm not Latino.' It's just that's not all they are. And neither am I. Being a Latino isn't just this one thing and nothing else, just like being a Texan isn't about being this one thing and nothing else. I'm a lot of things; my music is a lot of things, too."
Still, Vega is only half kidding when he says he wouldn't mind riding Ricky Martin's coattails to a record contract. "It's supposed to be cool to be Latino now, right? Can you tell the labels? I mean, we joke about it all the time: 'How can we tour in Mexico? Is there a blues circuit in Mexico?' I don't think there's one, but hey, if there is, I'll go play it."
Vega laughs when he's told that his upbeat attitude doesn't gel with the image of blues musicians as sad and broken men, singing about loss and pain. "There's a lot to struggle with, sure. Both personally and musically. And yeah, losing my parents at an early age, having to take care of my father, bathing him and changing his diaper, all of that affects you. But I'm not the kind of person who goes around saying, 'Oh, I've had such a hard life. Poor me.' Have I had problems? Of course. But getting to take care of your father is not a problem. Not getting to take care of him would have been much worse for me.
"I've been really blessed. I don't believe in storing my treasures here [on earth] anyway. So, looking for an easy life, that doesn't make sense. I have no complaints, none. I've got it good. I have a wonderful wife, a great family. I get to make a living playing music that I love. What can I complain about?
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"When we go overseas, people expect us to sound like one particular thing. If you look for us in a catalog over there, we're under 'White Blues/USA.' And white blues is something other than blues; it's not the real thing. I'm too rock for the blues purists, and not rock enough for the labels. We're still 100 percent independent, so we never have enough money to just go in the studio and record for weeks and weeks at a time. It's always a question of what's the best record we can do for the amount of money we have.
"I don't make the same kind of money that other guys make, but I bet you most people would love to trade places with me," he says. "I don't have to go to some nine-to-five job that I hate. I get to play my guitar all day. I'm up on stage or in the studio, and I'm doing what I really, really love to do. With pride, with humility, I am getting to do what I love. What else can I ask for?
"Whenever I get down, I remember -- I'm not in Iraq, I'm not in Cuba. I'm getting paid to drive 30 minutes down a road that doesn't have any land mines in it, to play music that I love, and then come home, go to sleep in my own bed with my wonderful wife, and the police aren't going to come knock down my door because I played the wrong song. What can I complain about?"
For more information about Tony Vega's CD Then & Now, visit www.thetonyvegaband.com.