After many years of pigeonholing and labeling by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning record executives, guitarist/singer-songwriter Raul Malo now feels as if he’s free from all of that. His live shows are part country, part contemporary folk, and part rock ‘n’ roll and blues. Finally, he’s arrived at a place in his career where he’s free to connect with his muse, which may be bluesy one day and country-sounding the next. After all, country music ain’t nothin’ but the white man’s blues, as many music historians have pointed out over the years.
“I have been fighting my whole life against people who want to pigeonhole music. I feel like I’ve got no restrictions anymore,” Malo says in a biography accompanying his forthcoming record, “Lucky One,” to be released this winter on Concord/Fantasy Records. Songs range from the upbeat like “Moonlight Kisses” and the title track to songs that deal with loss of loved ones, like “One More Angel,” and “Rosalie.” Malo performs on Saturday, December 13, at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, a 40-minute drive from Princeton.
Malo’s new collection of songs on “Lucky One” reflects his diverse musical upbringing in Miami, prior to his move to Nashville in 1991 and subsequent signing to MCA/Nashville as the leader of the country-rock band the Mavericks.
Malo’s voice has been described as a “burnished tenor” by the New York Times. Asked what he thinks of this, he says, “I don’t know what the New York Times meant. I guess it’s a compliment. There’re other ways to insult somebody, so I don’t think they were insulting me.”
Malo broke up the Mavericks in 2005 to pursue his solo career, but not before an earth-shaking performance at Stubbs’ Barbecue in Austin during the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.
He was born in 1965 in Miami to Cuban immigrant parents. His mother played piano, and his father, who held a succession of blue collar jobs, had plenty of music around in the house. Malo began playing guitar as a 12-year-old. “Nobody in my family was a musician by trade. It was a pretty hard-working immigrant family,” he says. “Being a musician wasn’t a real job, but we certainly had a lot of time for music, and I had a lot of music around me.”
He says Miami, of course, was diverse musically. “You not only had all that Cuban music, but you had reggae and pop and even a good blues scene in the mid-1980s, so we listened to everything.”
Malo says his guitar influences included everything from the instrumental surf-rock band the Ventures to classical guitarist Andre Segovia. “Their inflections and phrasing are what I liked a lot, and what I listened to a lot, growing up.”
Malo says his first awareness of blues and country music came about in the 1970s. “The only country music I knew was through records, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, and people like that, because my dad had a great country music collection.” His father and mother were also passionate about Cuban big bands, who played jazz.
“As a teenager, I remember blues artists who traveled through Miami. We had a wide range of artists who came through. These older hippies who lived down there supported these great clubs — they had Buddy Guy, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and I remember seeing Johnnie Johnson when I got old enough to go out to clubs. In the mid-1980s, Miami just had a lot of great music, period.”
Malo began playing in a band in his teens, but his bandmates didn’t let him sing. Eventually he grew frustrated with the situation and started writing his own songs and began playing out by himself, with acoustic guitar. He formed the Mavericks by 1990.
“We played down there quite a bit and made enough of a name for ourselves that we were signed to MCA in 1991,” he says. A year later, “From Hell To Paradise” was released on MCA Records, Nashville.
“We were marketed and promoted as a country act, and the first record got critical reviews, but that was about it,” he says. When reminded what rock poet Lou Reed says about critical acclaim being the kiss of death, Malo points out the band’s second record, “What A Crying Shame,” was the one that put the band over the top and got them their notoriety. Another album, “Trampoline,” got the band its foothold in Europe, where they later toured.
After beginning to write his own songs in his late teens, he says he realized, “I was trying to find modern songs that I liked, and I didn’t really like any, so I started writing my own.” The original songs on “Lucky One” show a maturity and depth not typically found in today’s country music, at least not the kind of commercial country that emanates from Nashville.
“Songwriting is like anything, you just start doing it and play the songs to an audience, and if they clap and seem to enjoy themselves, then you’ve probably done a pretty good job,” he says.
In 1992, when the Mavericks were living in Nashville, Malo says, “I got all the affirmation I needed when we got signed on the strength of my songs. That was cool. After we lived there for a while, I really got to know other really good songwriters and got to hanging out with people like Harlan Howard.”
Malo’s forthcoming album is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and the two have worked together successfully in the past, on Malo’s first solo album. “He brings something to the recording process itself. He has great arrangement ideas, he has an attention to detail, and he has a willingness to push the envelope and try different things,” Malo says. “Those are his strengths. Los Lobos have always been one of my favorite bands. His overall creative vibe is what he brings to the recording console. We just clicked on a musical level and a personal level on ‘Today,’ my first solo record.”
With three school-aged children Malo says he doesn’t hang out in clubs and coffee houses in Nashville much anymore. “They keep me pretty busy, so when nighttime comes around, unless there’s somebody I really want to see, I don’t go out much,” he says. He married in 1992 and his first son was born in 1995.
With Fantasy/Concord Records, a California-based company run by socially-conscious television executives, including Norman Lear, Malo is content and very confident that every effort will be made to promote his new record. “It’s nice to have the support of a label,” Malo says. “I’m in a much better spot than some of the people at major labels right now. If I was a major label artist right now, I’d be cautious, because it’s time for the inmates to run the asylum.
“In Nashville, you have producers who own the songs, and you have these records that are filled with songs that are owned by the publisher, and you’re getting CDs that cost $18.99. Why would a student spend $19 on a CD that’s loaded with crap? And of course, my eight-year-old son can get on the computer and download anything he wants, and there’s nothing these fat cats can do about it.”
The demise of the modern record business as we know it, in Malo’s opinion, stems from the personal greed of the record executives. “When they decided to start prosecuting the kids who are downloading songs, I realized, ‘OK, it’s the fall of the Roman Empire.’ And with all those albums the Mavericks sold, how come I’ve never seen a royalty check from MCA?”
Fortunately for all of us, Malo kept his publishing, so he collects publishing royalties. Malo’s songs have been recorded by Rod Stewart, Englebert Humperdinck, Neil Diamond, and Bonnie Raitt, to name just a few.
At the Scottish Rite Auditorium concert on December 13, Malo will be accompanied by the band that plays with him on the record, which includes Jay Weaver on bass, John McTigue on drums, Howard Larabea on piano, Ben Graves on saxophone, and Jamison Sevits on trumpet. Malo handles rhythm guitar and all lead vocals.
“It’s a Christmas show, so we’ll be doing some Christmas songs, but we’ll be doing some new songs off this record as well as some songs from my earlier solo records,” he says. “it won’t be exclusively a Christmas show.”
Raul Malo, Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood. Saturday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m. 856-858-1000 or www.raulmalo.com.