Conjunto's King

Flaco Jimenez is the heavyweight champion of conjunto, a style nourished here in Texas. What honky-tonk was for working-class whites, conjunto was for working-class Texan-Mexicans. The 61-year-old Jimenez, the son of the son of an accordion player, has the sound in his blood. And then some.

Jimenez makes the accordion as cool as he is. Working in the studio with a wide variety of superstars, Jimenez says, helps that attitude stay crisp -- like when he recently recorded with Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. (The duo's Sleepy Town is due out at the end of this month and is part Tex-Mex, part country).

The late Doug Sahm, a fellow Texan, was the first to challenge Jimenez. In 1973 Sahm recruited Jimenez to play alongside Bob Dylan and Dr. John on Sahm's Doug Sahm and Band. "Doug told me, "You're not supposed to play just that simple, traditional conjunto music,' " recalls Jimenez. "There are so many players who stayed in the same crater like my papa did. Doug showed me there were other worlds out there."

At first an inspired Jimenez started playing some jazzy riffs with a rock and roll feel. Then he began singing in both English and Spanish. His mission was to share his culture and to share his music beyond the tiny, circumscribed Tejano world. "Let's make a big fiesta," he recalls having said to himself. "Let's make jamming things between our cultures. I had that feeling that one of these days I would jam with heavyweights, and my dreams came true."

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Jimenez jammed with the heaviest musicians of every kind. Of note, he recorded one cut, "Sweethearts Together," for the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge. And how sweet it is.

Flaco Jimenez gets respect (maybe those five Grammys have something to do with that). And as he blazed new trails, so now he is, quite expectedly, bemoaning others and their new directions. "Now they add synthesizers and horns and call it Tejano music," says Jimenez. "They are not going for the roots music. But the accordion is still there. If there's no accordion in the band, then there's no feel to it. It's like a country band without a fiddle or a steel guitar. Can you imagine that?"

Well, yeah. It's called "young country." You wonder if Flaco Jimenez will be around when some radio genius discovers "young conjunto."

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Aaron Howard