Don’t mess with these Texans
IT hasn’t been at all lonely at the top for Los Lonely Boys, the hit trio of Mexican American brothers with the rootsy music style they call Texican. In fact, the boys discovered that stardom meant no shortage of people telling them how to follow up on their self-titled 2003 debut album, a surprise, multiplatinum smash with the Grammy-winning hit single “Heaven.”
Their label suggested they should cover radio-friendly songs by other writers. Their manager, a former Texas musician himself, was fixated on churning out the next hit single. And some well-meaning marketers even told them to tone down the spirituality that was part of their upbringing in the big sky country of West Texas and that found its way naturally into songs like “Heaven,” written as a prayer in a desperate, down-and-out moment in Memphis.
For the Garza brothers -- Henry, 28; Jojo, 26; and Ringo, 25 -- the pressures of success had become more stifling than the hard years on the road since childhood, playing cheap cantinas and VFW halls as their father’s backup band.
These young bucks had witnessed bar fights before learning to drive. They had risked alienating their patriarch and mentor by going out on their own while still in their teens.
Good luck trying to corral them now.
“There were too many people poking at the baby that we were creating,” said Henry of the band’s second album, “Sacred,” which debuted recently at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts. “And we were just being like parents taking care of the baby in the embryo. It’s like, ‘Stop touching it, damn it. Stop touching it!’ Because if you touch it too much, there’s going to be something wrong with it.”
The out-of-the-box success of “Sacred,” also among the top 10 downloaded albums on iTunes, defused the infamous sophomore jinx that tends to derail new acts after auspicious debuts. And it freed them from answering skeptics who worried they would be one-hit wonders. That was getting irritating, you can tell.
But by sticking to their artistic guns, Los Lonely Boys also proved they are a band to be reckoned with, one that may legitimately claim the rarefied legacy of Mexican American rock predecessors Los Lobos and Carlos Santana.
The band, set to perform at the Greek Theatre on Friday, is also the subject of a prescient feature documentary, “Los Lonely Boys: Cottonfields and Crossroads.” Produced and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Hector Galan, the 90-minute movie began shooting in 2002, two years before the band’s big breakout. It recently started rolling out in theaters in Texas, with screenings in Los Angeles scheduled for October.
Galan, who hails from the same hometown of San Angelo, says Los Lonely Boys are a bicultural success story. Their secret, he figures, lies in their ability to retain a barrio identity while tapping into other worlds that normally don’t meet, including country music, white Christian groups and die-hard Chicano homeboys.
“There are very, very few groups in history like Los Lonely Boys coming from the barrio and crossing over to mainstream rock and roll,” Galan said the other day. “Usually what happens, especially with Chicanos, we’re categorized and put into brackets. So it’s very interesting that they’ve been able to tap into that mainstream vein. Who else is doing that right now that’s Latino? Nobody, man!”
The film provides an intimate portrait of the band and its history: the childhood years sacrificing schooling to play honky-tonks and cantinas with their father, Enrique “Ringo” Garza Sr.; the traumatic divorce of their parents, two sisters staying with mom while the boys stayed with dad, a split that inspired the band’s name; the frustrating years in Memphis supporting their father’s futile search for stardom as a country singer modeled after outlaws such as Willie Nelson, who ironically would become an early supporter and patron of Los Lonely Boys, minus Dad.
When Boys leave their father
THE movie delves into the boys’ painful split from their father 10 years ago, which led to a period of family estrangement. But if there were hard feelings when they went on their own, you wouldn’t know it from watching them now around their father. They’re the model of dutiful, respectful and attentive sons.
In the self-serve cafeteria at NBC Studios in Burbank, where the band was recently waiting to shoot “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the boys made sure Dad got what he needed.
“Here ya go, Daddy,” said Jojo, putting a side dish on his father’s tray.
“You want a quesadilla, Daddy?” asked Ringo once the group was seated at a long table.
The boys were also quick to defend their father, who has worked as a cotton-picker and long-haul truck driver. When Enrique Sr. was asked how he felt now about pushing his underage children to play in bars at night and stay up late on school days, the Garza boys protested almost in unison.
“He never pushed us, man,” said Ringo. “We loved it, man.”
The boys kept quiet, though, when their father denied that there was ever any rift between them.
“How could I be jealous of my sons?” said the senior Garza, 56, who sports a stringy goatee and a curly mullet. “Every parent wants their children to do better than they did, and that’s the way I feel. When I started out, I wanted to be an astronaut. But if I didn’t get to the moon, I wanted my sons to get there.”
The new album does not depart from the band’s trademark blend of blues, country and Texas guitar rock filtered through a subtle Chicano sensibility. Henry says the follow-up is like “turning the page of the same book.”
Yet the sound of “Sacred” is richer and heftier, bolstered with horns and a polished, punchy production that showcases the band’s scintillating guitar work and impeccable sibling harmonies. This CD also more faithfully captures the energy and urgency of playing live, which is the band’s forte. Plus, the songwriting has matured, yielding some tunes that command attention beyond the first album’s pleasant but dispensable pop rock.
Oddly enough, the new album is selling without a hit single so far.
“It’s a total anomaly,” said band manager Kevin Wommack of Loophole Entertainment in Austin. “They sell irrespective of press and radio because Los Lonely Boys have a fan base. They’re connecting directly to real people.”
JUST spending a while with the brothers gives you a sense of their differing personalities. Ringo is the youngest, burly and good-natured until his famous temper flares. Jojo is the middle one, a devilish flirt and a sharp dresser. Henry is the oldest and the tallest, an articulate, natural leader and the soul of the band.
All of them had their doubts about the first single from “Sacred” released by Or/Sony, a tune called “Diamonds,” revived from their old repertoire. The label had urged them to rerecord it and decided it was the song to send to radio.
What song would Los Lonely Boys have picked?
Their unanimous answer: “My Way,” a biting, defiant statement of identity and independence that opens the album.
“Everybody loves it, man,” said Ringo. “Everybody’s talking about it.”
The song was born in one of those moments of creative tension in the studio. Too many cooks had their hands in the menudo, and the band finally said basta!
“We were having like a little fuss going on with the producer [John Porter] and our manager,” recalled Henry while waiting backstage at NBC. “We were talking about the album and the songs, and it was like, ‘Just stop telling us what to do!’
“And Jojo got on the piano, dah, dah, dah, and I just started singing what I felt: Don’t tell me how to live my life / Don’t tell me how to pray / Don’t tell me how to sing my song / Don’t tell me what to say. And Jojo kept playing the piano and we were like, ‘This is going somewhere.’ And we just kept on it and finished the song right there, man.”
Los Lonely Boys still live in San Angelo, where they’re raising their families with nine kids among them. They own a custom car business called the Texican Chop Shop, and they can’t go out for dinner without being mobbed for autographs.
It’s exactly where they want to be -- home.
“We know how happy we were even when we had no money,” said Ringo. “When we had nothing, we were still a happy family because we were together and we stuck together, man. And if we lost everything and we got dropped from our record label and nobody wanted to buy our album anymore, we’d still play your local cantina, man.”
“We’re not scared, carnal,” added Jojo, using Mexican slang for brother, “because we’ve been there already.”