Texas Music

Texas Accordion King Santiago Jimenez Jr. Keeps the Conjunto Tradition Alive

Santiago Jimenez Jr, jamming the old-school conjunto way.
Santiago Jimenez Jr, jamming the old-school conjunto way. Photo by Mike Davila
It doesn’t really bother Santiago Jimenez Jr. that three generations of accordion players might end with him. At 73, he’s still touring, still producing music and still more than happy to sell CDs hand-to-hand.

Yet he knows he’s in the twilight of kicking around with his Hohner accordion, hitting gigs all over Texas. He recently had surgery for cataracts, but the prognosis was good for a speedy recovery and he wasn’t going to let “a little surgery” keep him from hitting the stage for San Antonio’s annual Conjunto Festival.

Playing alongside his brother Flaco Jimenez, and squeezing the bellows on his two-button accordion are things Santiago has done most of his life. He’s modest about most of his accolades. But for those in the know, he is the guy who has sustained his brand of what he refers to as “Tex-Mex Conjunto”  through the years. The music was born along the U.S./Mexico border and passed along from Santiago's grandfather to his father and finally to him.

Santiago has held close to the traditional sound his father, Santiago Jimenez, employed during his career, which ran from the 1930s through the early 1980s. “My father passed away and I told him before he passed away, I said, ‘If you ever pass away, I’m going to keep playing your music,’” he remembers.

“I like to play my father’s style. I have his style and it makes memories for the people that hear this music, people that knew my dad, who used to go to his dances and everything," adds Jimenez. "They say, ‘Man, you play like your dad.’ I know, that’s why I’m doing it, because I feel like he’s still around.”

Santiago points to the 1979 Les Blank documentary Chulas Fronteras as the only time he was recorded playing with his father. He revisits the moment from time to time when he pops the movie into the DVD player, he says.

He says he remembers when the movie was shot in the backyard of the family’s Dallas home. “I was surprised that they wanted to record my father and make a documentary," Jimenez recalls. "My father didn’t have anybody to play with him, so I played the bajo sexto with him and it was great. That’s the only time we recorded like that."

Although the Jimenez legacy is cemented in the history books, he says it's likely to end there. Of his four children, none are dedicated to music the way he was as a child. Self-taught, and following in the footsteps of his father, Santiago recorded his first album with his brother when he was 17. It was the time of the verbal-contract record deal. National and international tours would follow.

Santiago doesn't like to brag, he says, but he claims to be the only conjunto player to be invited to the White House on two occasions. It’s something he’s extremely proud of in a very long career. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts last September, one of the highest national honors an artist can receive.

“That’s big to me. In 2000 I was at the White House with President Clinton, I was in the Oval Office with him to get an award, and then not too long ago I had an invitation to go to the White House with Obama," Jimenez says. "It was a surprise, man, to get an award. I mean, it was just something out of the sky."

But if anything defines the septuagenarian, it’s his humility. He still records his own music on an eight-track player in his home. And he sticks to what he calls “pure tradition, the old-school stuff,” when it comes to his recordings. He doesn’t sell his songs on a website and prefers to sell directly to fans who come to his shows.

“I have two new CDs I’ll be selling,“ he says about his upcoming Miller Outdoor Theatre stop at Saturday's Accordion Kings & Queens Festival presented by Texas Folklife. He recorded a CD called Curamento de Amor, which has renditions of some of his father’s classics such as the conjunto staple “Viva Seguin."

And he says that if he runs out of CDs (he usually sells out), he doesn’t mind people reaching out to him. “If they want to call me and they want to order, they can call me.”

The brothers Jimenez will be performing as part of the 28th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens concert 7 p.m. Saturday, June 3 at Miller Outdoor Theater, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. Free.

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Camilo Hannibal Smith started writing for the Houston Press in 2014. A former copy editor, he was inspired to focus on writing about pop culture and entertainment after a colleague wrote a story about Paul Wall's grills. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times and the Source magazine.