Tish Hinojosa's new album sprang from a search through the past for a song she had never heard. In hunting it down, she discovered a trove of music and lore from her Mexican American heritage.
Butch Hancock recently began writing a novel about a man for whom the past doesn't exist: Everything that ever happened to him seems to be an immediate reality unfolding in the present.
Crossing borders between past and present clearly holds a fascination for these two singer-songwriters, who will arrive at the Galaxy Concert Theatre tonight with the all-Texas musical revue dubbed the Border Tour.
Joining them are two other headliners who specialize in bringing musical forms out of the past to enliven the present. Santiago Jimenez Jr. hews to the traditional conjunto folk accordion style that his father pioneered and that his older brother, Flaco Jimenez, has translated into pop and rock surroundings on his solo albums and as a member of the Texas Tornados. Don Walser, who started his musical career in West Texas sharing bills with Buddy Holly, plays a vibrant, thoroughly traditional brand of barn-dance country music that is shot through with the wild and strange delights of his yodeling vocal style.
Hinojosa, 39, straddles many a musical boundary. Her songwriting bridges two languages, with some original songs in Spanish, others in English, all delivered in a voice of striking purity and nuanced restraint.
She ranges between traditional and contemporary styles--Mexican folk and country music on the one hand, modern folk-pop on the other. Her themes oscillate between the romantic and the political. Even her business situation crosses borders--Hinojosa (pronounced ee-no-HO-sah) is simultaneously under contract to Warner Bros., a major label pitching her to mainstream audiences, and to Rounder Records, an independent company that is issuing her more traditional and rootsy efforts, including the new, all-Spanish release "Frontejas."
Hancock, 49, has arranged his creative life to be fluid and virtually border-free. He is a prolific songwriter whose work has been given wide exposure by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker and Hancock's two boyhood chums from Lubbock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He also is a photographer, an architect-remodeler, the owner of a combination record shop, art gallery and performance space in Austin called Lubbock-Or-Leave-It and a part-time guide and serenader for river rafting tours.
Hinojosa is the hostess and prime mover for the Border Tour, and her four-man band will back all the performers.
"We're not climbing on the bus as cheerleaders for Texas," she said of the revue, speaking fom the Austin home where she lives with her husband, a lawyer and ex-musician, and their two children. "We're all people in whom the culture is ingrained pretty naturally. All four of us represent a very sincere and honest place with our music."
Hinojosa grew up in San Antonio, the 13th child of immigrant parents. The first music to capture her was in Spanish, coming over the radio or sung by a mother whom Hinojosa would later discover had been known for her singing in her youth in Mexico. In her teens, Hinojosa got caught up in the folk and rock of the '60s; she cites Linda Ronstadt as a key influence in her decision to make a career of singing.
Hinojosa's earliest steps as a professional singer were taken in Spanish, in her hometown. She moved to Taos, N.M., in 1979 and began to absorb country music. That led to a stab at Nashville and the country mainstream during the mid-1980s.
"It didn't take me long to get bored and frustrated from something that didn't move me," she said of her time trying to sing material incubated in Nashville's commercial song-hatcheries. "I knew I had something more to offer, although I didn't know what that something was."
In 1989, having moved to Austin, Hinojosa emerged with the album "Homeland," in which she clearly had discovered that she had more than one thing to offer. Her album-opening "Border Trilogy" included reflections in English and Spanish on her own family's history and on the plight of present-day Mexican immigrants; other songs roamed through sprightly Tex-Mex music, pure honky-tonk, even a touch of R&B.;
"Frontejas" finds Hinojosa digging deeper into the Mexican musical legacy. Her initial motive was personal: On a visit to Mexico, Hinojosa had learned that her mother, who died in 1985, was known in her hometown for singing a certain ballad. Hinojosa decided to track the song down.
Armed only with the title, "Collar de Perlas" ("Collar of Pearls"), her inquiries proved fruitless for almost a year--until she got a call from a retired professor from the University of Texas, Americo Paredes. He sang her the sad ballad of lost love under its alternate title, "Dejame Llorar" ("Let Me Weep").
That led to what Hinojosa describes as an "apprenticeship" under the octogenarian Paredes, an expert in the music and history of the Texas-Mexico border.
"I've got about 50 songs on tape" as a result, Hinojosa said. "I just made a very strong connection with him." Hinojosa said that songs she learned from Paredes--including the one her mother had sung as a young woman--make up about half the material on "Frontejas."
Hinojosa is well aware that times have seldom been more turbulent along the political and cultural border of which she sings.
She sees "a significant connection" between the Border Tour and the political issues flaring along the border. But she says her performances are about singing, not debating.
"I'm real involved with a lot of political (issues), what every Latino American is concerned with now. I do get asked, 'Are you going to say something about this?' When the time is right, I say it, but I don't like using my stage as a soapbox. I like for the music to say it and just for the event itself to represent that. If it doesn't show (through the music), to have to say it verbally loses purpose."
Working in two languages, and in styles that don't readily fit into mainstream country or Latino pop formats, Hinojosa isn't traveling the easiest path to burgeoning album sales. After reaching out to the mainstream last year via "Destiny's Gate," with its tailored, synthesizer-tinged sound and its parallels to work by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and Natalie Merchant, Hinojosa said that she was criticized by some of her older fans.
"I was ready to do a polished record; I didn't want to get stuck. I like to be a little more on the surprising side, I guess, although with certain people I ended up hanging myself. But I think (listeners) who are going to be true-grit fans are going to appreciate it when an artist takes them on a journey somewhere a little different.
"In some ways I'm already satisfied; in others I'd like to see it go a lot further. I wouldn't be satisfied if I sold a million records singing something that didn't mean anything to me. I'd rather sell 50,000 records that people bought because of some(thing) significant they connected with."
If family ties run deep in Hinojosa's music, Butch Hancock's career has been bound up with some long-lasting friendships.
Fans of Texas' great tradition of multifaceted, literate-but-rootsy folk-country-rock songwriting may know Hancock best from his writing credits on albums by Ely and Gilmore, both of whom have regularly covered his songs. Hancock's own recording career has been primarily a do-it-yourself affair. He has put out seven albums since 1978 on his own Rainlight label.
Now Hancock has changed his method of operation. The just-released "Eats Away the Night" is on established North Carolina independent label Sugar Hill. The production, overseen by guitarist Gurf Morlix, yields the cleanest, most accessible presentation of Hancock's career.
"It's the first I've done with everything kind of in gear like that--the first time I've done a full-fledged studio album with a reasonable budget, where we've had time to do it with all the proper equipment," Hancock said over the phone from the living quarters attached to his Lubbock-Or-Leave-It shop. "I enjoyed doing it so much, I'd say look for more of them in the future."
With his photography, his river rafting and his architectural interests, Hancock has had plenty to do besides worrying about climbing career ladders in the music business. Nor has he concerned himself with whether he might be spreading his energies and talents too thin.
"I've never really looked too closely at that Jack versus master thing," he said in his creamy, relaxed drawl. "It truly means nothing to me. You can be a master of something and be a complete idiot the next moment. Somebody said one Buddha-like thought makes you a Buddha, and one foolish thought makes you a fool. We keep striving toward mastery and sometimes have to be a fool to work toward it.
"People wonder why I do all these other things, but to me they're all absolutely integrally related. Sometimes I say 'Frank Lloyd Wright' when people ask me what influences my songwriting. Basic ideas of rhythm and pattern, forms and shape and harmony and balance apply in all forms of art."
Hancock clearly is in his element holding forth as a folksy theoretician of the creative process and a mystically aware plains version of a Zen philosopher. But the quality of his songwriting shows that he can bring an idea out of the speculative ether and into crisp, well-wrought being.
Hancock began writing songs in 1967, while driving tractors for his father's earth-moving business.
"I had dropped out of college and decided to sit on a tractor and think about it all for a while. It was a turning point in my life. I began to study metaphysics. Jimmie (Gilmore) and I were into that, trading notes and theories."
His first couple hundred songs weren't worth hearing, Hancock says, but practice eventually made perfect, yielding an extensive repertoire--poignant ballads of romantic loss and yearning, wry strolls through life's little circus rings and evocative attempts at conjuring the kinds of mysteries that inherently lie beyond the grasp of language.
Fans encountering Hancock for the first time will probably think of Dylan, circa "Blood on the Tracks," or, in Hancock's more bluesy moments, "Highway 61 Revisited."
"I think (Dylan) influenced everybody massively, especially people who write songs that sound like poetry or that are poetry. It wasn't an imitation thing; I didn't even learn a lot of his songs. It just so happened that I was playing a guitar and a harmonica. I certainly wasn't a hot lead guitar player, so I learned to play the harmonica to cover some of those empty spaces while you're trying to remember the next verse."
In Hancock's case, there are often lots of verses to remember; stanzas will pile on top of each other in an accretion of suggestive images, as if the way to gain understanding is to look at a subject from many different vantage points. But usually Hancock will anchor it all in some core image or narrative situation that's concrete and familiar.
As a songwriter, he said, "I'm searching for the words and phrases for some kind of energy I can't even name. I have to sing circles around it. For me, the best of art has to have a big hole in it, a big question mark that nobody can figure out. But it also needs an icon of familiarity, something everybody can relate to. That sets up an opportunity or a tension. (The listener can say), 'I can hang in here with all this nice, comfortable stuff, or maybe I can . . . use some creative juices to make some sense out of it.' "
A chat with Hancock reveals all sorts of projects anticipated or in progress--books of his photographs, the novel he began earlier this year while touring Europe, an album to consist entirely of songs about Billy the Kid.
"Sometimes I get frustrated that I haven't written a song in a while, and I give it a little more intention," Hancock said. "But I don't feel like I'm supposed to be sitting down and writing songs. I feel like I'm in a pretty good place the past few years. I don't feel I have to write a song ever again, and yet I feel very anxious to see what the next one is going to be, and I have a good time writing. I don't feel like any particular thing has to be done, and yet there's some crazy drive."
* What: The Border Tour, with Tish Hinojosa, Butch Hancock, Santiago Jimenez Jr. and Don Walser.
* When: Today, March 23, at 8 p.m.
* Where: Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Harbor Boulevard, head north on Harbor and take the third right, Lake Center Drive. Theater is on the left.
* Wherewithal: $18.50.
* Where to call: (714) 957-0600.
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: THROWING MUSES
"University" is the latest strong album by the Rhode Island-based Muses, one of the longest-running and most respected bands to emerge from the '80s alternative rock movement. They play at the Coach House on Saturday, March 25, with Ohio-based Ass Ponys opening. (714) 496-8930.
IN SANTA ANA: THE BLASTERS
Best known for spearheading L.A.'s roots-rock revival in the early '80s, the Blasters haven't recorded an album since the departure of songwriter Dave Alvin. But they're featured on singer Phil Alvin's new solo album, and they play Saturday, March 25, at the Galaxy Concert Theatre. (714) 957-0600.
IN CAPISTRANO AND SANTA ANA: GUITAR GUYS
A bill for guitar lovers pairs Buddy Guy, the Chicago-blues legend, with Sonny Landreth, the guitar-vocal-songwriting triple threat from New Orleans. They play at the Coach House, (714) 496-8930, on Monday and Tuesday, March 27-28; at the Galaxy, (714) 957-0600, on Wednesday, March 29.