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Mavericks Finding Cost of Freedom

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What a crying shame.

The Mavericks have earned back-to-back Country Music Assn. awards and platinum- and gold-selling albums. Yet in an ironic twist, the quartet has enjoyed success despite receiving very little mainstream country-radio airplay.

The band further distances itself from the Nashville radio establishment with its new album, “Trampoline” (MCA), which sounds nothing like the formulaic country-pop of Garth Brooks, Terri Clark or Brooks & Dunn. Rather, it’s an ambitious, genre-bending effort featuring lush orchestration, a four-piece horn section and other unexpected touches, including a gospel-tinged number, bossa nova rhythms and the use of a sitar.

“In some people’s eyes, the kind of album we had to make was probably this safe, straightforward, kinda boring album that would fit nicely on the radio,” lead singer Raul Malo said in a recent phone interview. “But I had to make this album for me. We’ve been talking for some time about making this crazy type of record. Heck, you gotta take your chances every once in a while.”

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Indeed. Reflecting diverse musical influences, the Mavericks--which include lead guitarist Nick Kane, drummer Paul Deakin and bassist Robert Reynolds (husband of Trisha Yearwood)--roam from Roy Orbison-like crooners and Bakersfield-style twang to Latin-tinged country-pop-rock and “Trampoline’s” almost-anything-goes melange. The band, with opener Wayne “The Train” Hancock, performs Tuesday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana.

The Mavericks, formed in Florida in 1989, received little national attention until “What a Crying Shame,” their commercial breakthrough in 1994. Featuring a bona fide hit with Jesse Winchester’s “O What a Thrill"--plus a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow"--the album went platinum and led to a series of industry awards.

Their next release, 1995’s “Music for All Occasions,” ventured into jazz, atmospheric lounge music and Tex-Mex in songs thematically centered around romantic yearning and heartache. It didn’t do as well commercially but did go gold.

The Mavericks took most of last year off to recharge before beginning work on the new album. Malo said he had no idea how “Trampoline” would unfold, but everyone agreed on pursuing something stylistically different.

“In my household, I listened to Buck Owens, Celia Cruz, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin. . . . We just listened to and enjoyed it all,” said Malo, 32, whose parents left Cuba for the U.S. in the early ‘60s. “No one cared what particular style any of it was--as long as it was good.

“I don’t know, everyone’s making such a big deal about this new album’s diversity and genre-hopping. But is it so unusual--and why not branch out? Plus, I’ll admit, we do like to shake up people’s perception of what’s OK to do.”

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Over the years, the Mavericks’ choice of covers has often raised eyebrows. For instance, “Music for All Occasions” features Malo and Yearwood singing a duet of “Something Stupid,” the 1966 Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit. And live, look out for countrified versions of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up,” and an incredible jump-swing version of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.”

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“We look for some shock value in what [songs] we will cover,” Malo said. “Not in the Marilyn Manson sense, but where the audience goes, ‘Wow, I’ve heard this tune somewhere but I’m not sure where. . . .’ One we’ve just started doing is Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘A Man Without Love.’ ”

And for those who react with, “Hey, that’s not country music”?

“I don’t buy that,” Malo said. “I know it’s not country, but what the hell is country nowadays? I can count on one hand the number of artists I consider to be genuine country. The rest are just hats and wannabe rock ‘n’ rollers with a steel guitar. The sad part is there are lots of talented bands that aren’t getting a fair shake.”

In that regard, the Mavericks have lent a hand by enlisting such critically praised but underexposed acts as Hancock, Junior Brown and the Derailers to open some shows.

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“We tie in musically to a lot of these guys. . . . I think there’s an underlying quality that binds us together,” Malo said. “They might not sell a million records, but they’re important, roots-y artists, and I think our fans really enjoy them. I know I’m looking forward to hearing Wayne [Hancock] yodel.”

“Trampoline” has garnered mostly rave reviews since its release in March, earning praise for its adventurous independent spirit, inviting sounds and Malo’s deep, gorgeous voice. Yet one criticism lingers: a lack of depth in the songwriting department.

“I’ll read reviews panning my lyrics, but I don’t think every song has to have a deep message or be socially conscious,” Malo said. “There are plenty of whiners out there . . . do we really need one more? This is entertainment. If you want to be preached to, go to Sunday school.

“Sometimes it’s the simplest tunes that are the catchiest. This one new song [‘Dolores’] is actually pretty silly: ‘Dolores from the silver screen/A bigger star than Charlie Sheen/Quite an act for being mean/She is, yes she is.’ But it made me laugh, so I put it on the album. What’s the harm in that?”

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Hummable or not, don’t expect the ragtime-ish “Dolores"--or any other new Mavericks tune--to grace the airwaves soon.

“It’s getting worse. . . . Truthfully, it’s really disgusting what’s happening,” Malo said. “Except for maybe [National Public Radio] and a few AM specialty stations, radio basically plays the same records all day long. There are no independent stations anymore. . . . Now they’re all part of conglomerates who have to answer to their stockholders and advertisers. Man, the individuality and personality of a station is going the way of the eight-track.”

In another one of those ironic twists, a co-sponsor of the band’s concert Friday at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles was KZLA-FM (93.9), whose “sound of country today” includes the Eagles and Bob Seger but not the Mavericks’ new single, “To Be With You.”

“The singles MCA has released aren’t what we’re looking for,” said John Sebastian, the station’s program director. “I like the Mavericks, and we have played them in the past. But country is very competitive right now, and honestly, we don’t feel they have a contemporary hit song at the moment.”

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What a crying shame.

* The Mavericks and Wayne “The Train” Hancock perform Tuesday at the Galaxy, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. Sold out.


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