Lucky Boy's Confusion

Mando Saenz is the kind of guy who wins the lottery the first time he buys a ticket. One day Saenz is a singer-songwriter scuffling for an audience, his new album all but stillborn. The next moment coins jingle in his pocket and he's got a Nashville publishing deal. And all without selling more than a handful of records or generating a local buzz.

"It came without much in the way of record sales or a following," Saenz allows, "yet I wouldn't say it came easy. I like to think I've paid my dues like everyone else the last few years, waiting tables, being poor, playing in front of nobody."

Saenz hardly took a typical path to a career in music. After graduating from high school in Corpus Christi, he headed west to Lubbock and a business degree at Texas Tech, where he played guitar in his room. After taking an MBA at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Saenz landed in Houston. Soon fed up with the corporate world, Saenz began waiting tables at places such as Teala's, playing open-mike nights and writing songs.

Local producer John Egan remembers the first night Saenz signed up for his open-mike session about two years ago. "He was shy and nervous and lacked polish. But I thought that first night there was something there." Egan encouraged Saenz to hustle for gigs and hone his craft, and when Saenz decided to record, he asked Egan to produce. Recorded at Cherry Ridge Studios in Floresville with Clay Blaker's old band, Watertown is a country-folk Ryan Adams-ish album showcasing Saenz's songwriting and his voice. Released by Thomas Escalante's Plethorazine label, the record hit the wall almost immediately upon release as distributor Southwest Wholesale shut its doors.

Just as he seemed to have crashed and burned on takeoff, two other local artists gave Saenz a boost. The first was Hayes Carll, a rising Texas singer-songwriter.

"Hayes had a tour booked and asked me along to split the shows. We'd met at the Old Quarter in Galveston when I was doing a song swap and he was just hanging out. A few months later we shared a bill at the Continental Club and he asked me if I wanted to take a road trip with him. We laugh about it now, but it wasn't nearly as glamorous as we thought it might be."

While on the road with Carll, Saenz received another push, from Houston singer Lise Liddell. Saenz sang on Liddell's album, which Egan also produced. Liddell liked Watertown and forwarded a copy to her brother, Grammy-nominated Nashville producer Frank Liddell.

"Lise sent me a copy of Mando's record a year ago," Liddell says, "then re-sent it about six months ago, telling me I was an idiot for not having already listened to it. So I listened and thought Mando was great. That's it. I liked him. Nothing more, no marketing angle, nothing. I just liked him."

"I got a call from Lise saying Frank had finally listened to Watertown and wanted to talk to me," Saenz says. "It just happened that Hayes and I were on our way from Memphis to Nashville and would be in town the next day, so we all met at The Sutler" -- a Nashville songwriter hangout -- "where Hayes was having a showcase. The next day we went to his office and played a couple of songs for Frank and his partner. He showed some interest but needed time to think about it, I guess. A week later we were in Boston and I got a call asking if I could come to Nashville again. I hung out with Frank a couple of days and we finally came to a verbal agreement."

While there may have been some uncertainty at their first meetings, Frank Liddell is anything but uncertain when he discusses Saenz's writing career with his publishing company, Carnival Music, which represents writers Bruce Robison, Craig Dillingham and David Grissom. Liddell has made a name for himself in Nashville producing LeeAnn Womack, Chris Knight and Jack Ingram. His first move has been to have Watertown remixed and prepared for rerelease with wider distribution.

"Watertown is a great first record," Liddell says. "Mando's lyrics are important, so I asked that the record be tweaked so the vocals would be a bit more prominent. Mando sings his ass off. He has incredible tone, texture, pitch, everything I could say about someone who has a great voice. But he also sings with pain, soul, emotion and an understanding of his lyrics. There is so much heart in his voice that you believe what he's saying. He's not just standing up there sounding good. He's also a poet. His songs are very metaphoric and original in rhyme scheme, phrasing, etc. The side of Texas that sings about drinking beer and eating Mexican food is completely covered, but Mando represents the more eccentric side of Texas singer-songwriter that I believe is often overlooked."

Currently Saenz is working solo singer-songwriter gigs and as the front man of a five-piece alt-country band that includes former Horseshoe bassist Ben Collis and fiddler Marty Starns (Opie Hendrix). Liddell is for keeping Saenz's performance options open.

"Mando's niche has yet to be determined, and I think it should be determined by his music. I have no desire to sacrifice Mando's talents to put him on country radio, and I don't think that's what he wants, either. If I have to groom him, we're already screwed."

Despite his good fortune in signing with Carnival and having his album released again, Saenz realizes there is much work to be done and many decisions to be made.

"People ask me what my plans are all the time, and all I can tell them is I plan to play as much as I can and sell as many records as I can once it is rereleased. Hopefully with promotion, publicity and tour support, this will happen.

"Whether I stay in Houston or move is uncertain. It is certain I'll need to spend a lot of time away from Houston to survive."

Liddell's goals are practical: to help Saenz build a live following, get a second album recorded, and try to get some of Saenz's songs recorded by other artists.

"There are artists in Nashville who consistently achieve gold status but who aren't making money. Then there's John Prine. Made several records, had songs recorded -- and by commercial artists as well, like George Strait, John Mellencamp -- probably never did anything but try to be John Prine. He's probably booked all summer for a fair amount of money and with a pretty small ensemble. So, down the road, I hope Mando has had a wonderful career, that he's had hits, sold a ton of records and has achieved rock-star status so that I can tour the world's great arenas and play bongos for him and sample great wine. But if he ends up having a career along the lines of John Prine, I don't think anyone will complain. It's important for him to write often and write great songs. I think the rest will take care of itself."

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William Michael Smith