Although Max Baca, leader of San Antonio Grammy winners Los Texmaniacs, was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he’s been at the right place at the right time to become one of the keepers of that unique Sir Douglas Quintet San Antonio sound. A beautiful marriage of conjunto, rock and roll, bajo sexto, accordion and Vox organ, that sound is one of San Antonio’s great cultural contributions and most recognizable exports.
Acknowledged as a world-class virtuoso of the bajo sexto, the Latin equivalent of the 12-string acoustic guitar, Baca was once asked by an inquisitive fan, ‘Why are you playing that pregnant guitar?’ He credits Sahm, who had more than just a passing acquaintance with the instrument, with “pointing me in the right direction.”
“I was the youngest guy in the Texas Tornados, and Doug would always take me aside and tell me, ‘Max, this is what you’re going to have to do when I’m not around anymore.’ It was Doug who explained to me that I couldn’t just do conjunto or Tejano or even just straight rock and roll, that I needed to cover a bunch of musical bases if I wanted to reach a lot of people and different audiences and make a good living. And he was so right.
“I remember Doug was schooling me and he took me on Willie’s bus and we smoked these huge joints,” Baca laughs. “Willie, Doug, Ray Benson, I’m in there with them, just this young dude, you know, and Doug got me so high I barely knew where I was when I stepped back out into the daylight. But that was just another of Doug’s little steps at bringing me along, putting me up against people to model myself after when he was gone.”
Baca notes Sahm was an accomplished bajo sexto player himself, and that while the classic SDQ lineup was guitar, bass, drums, sax and Vox organ, prior to their breakout with 1965's “She’s About a Mover” Sahm had already experimented with an ensemble that included the bajo sexto.
“Before the Quintet, Doug’s original thing had the bajo,” Baca explains. “We didn’t know it then, but when you put the bajo and the accordion with the rock and roll beat, which Doug did, you get the San Antonio sound. A lot of guys tinkered around with that, but Doug took it to another level and really separated himself from the pack. It’s strictly Texas music coming from San Antonio, but Doug managed to turn it into something really hip. And he did it long before guys like Ry Cooder caught on, like that Chicken Skin Music album Ry did in 1976, which sounds very much like a San Antonio recording with Flaco and others in the group.
“The original conjunto came from San Antonio and the Valley,” Baca explains, “and Doug had the genius or foresight to combine Flaco’s daddy’s music, the true San Antonio/Valley conjunto, with the rock and roll thing. It really was a stroke of genius.”
Baca goes on to explain more of the intricacies of the Quintet's sound.
“Most people don’t know it, but Augie [Meyers] plays that Vox organ like a bajo, putting the Vox on the down beat," he says. "That’s one key part of what people call the San Antonio sound today.”
Baca’s band Los Texmaniacs, who play Under the Volcano tonight, is one of only a handful of bands carrying on that sound.
“Of course there’s the [Texas] Tornados,” says Baca. “The Krayolas have stayed the course, and Mitch Webb also does a cool San Antonio thing. But there aren’t a lot of bands that do that true San Antonio rock sound anymore.”
The ’Maniacs' set includes a sprinkling of conjunto, a couple of Quintet covers, popular originals like "Down In the Barrio" from their self-titled 2015 album Americano Groove, and some cool vato radio hits like “Low Rider” or “Cisco Kid.”
“I grew up in Albuquerque,” Baca laughs, “so I grew up on conjunto and Creedence Clearwater Revival, you know. So I liked rock and roll, I liked blues, I liked the Tex-Mex sounds. I think in the ’Maniacs, we have a real authenticity even with the English-language stuff. Authenticity is constantly on our minds.”
One example of what Baca means by authenticity is the mentoring his nephew and Texmaniacs accordionist Josh Baca has received from accordion master Flaco Jimenez.
“Flaco doesn’t really do a lot of teaching, but he’s taken Josh under his wing,” Baca explains. “Flaco is so patient with Josh and he just teaches him some of the deeper intricacies of the instrument. Josh is 24 and up to this point, he’s learned everything on his own, but now he’s absorbing all this knowledge from Flaco. When someone of Flaco’s stature takes an interest in you, authenticity can flow from that. And authenticity is absolutely key for us.”
The band has just finished recording another album for Smithsonian Folkways Records. These are commissioned albums with a theme, and this time the subject matter is immigrants and labor.
“We had Lyle Lovett in as a guest on Woody Guthrie’s great protest song 'Deportee' [author’s note: The title is actually “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”]," says Baca. “We also cut a track with Los Tigres del Norte, which was a real hoot. I think we’ve got an album we’ll be proud of when we get some distance from it.”
Authenticity is a constant concern for Baca and the band.
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“I think we’ve learned that stuff that’s true and honest has the best chance to last,” Baca surmises.
The last time the band was in town was for a supergroup gig at northside Tejano club Area 45 with Jimenez, Meyers, Rick Trevino and members of Los Lobos. The minuscule crowd was far below expectations for such an illustrious bill; unfortunately, the promoters advertised only on local Hispanic radio stations.
“I guess the promoters didn’t realize that’s not really our crowd,” says Baca. “It’s unfortunate, but those folks know bands like La Tropa F but they don’t know us; we’re just not on their radar. Our audience is really the Americana crowd and true music fans. We do programs like Prairie Home Companion or NPR, and that tends to attract the Americana crowd rather than the conjunto purists. I wish we appealed to Mexicans more, but it’s just a fact that we don’t.”
Los Texmaniacs perform 8 p.m. tonight at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet.