Raul Malo's a nice guy--a real charmer, actually, the kind who bounds into a room and gives you a hearty-ass handshake, asks how you're doing and then waits to hear the answer--so I'm not really that surprised that he's not taking the chance I'm giving him to trash Nashville. As the former leader of the defunct, underappreciated country-pop band the Mavericks and the maker of an excellent new album under his own name called Today, Malo's got reason to talk dirty to me. Like his pal Shelby Lynne (who duets with Malo on Today on an undulating "Takes Two to Tango"), he's one of those types--a real artiste, the Nashvillians might say--for whom the country-music biz, with its rigid formalism and tree-sap sentiment, is simply not made.
You could kind of always tell that with the Mavericks, a band whose penchant for '50s-style pop and whose barely submerged Latin flavor (Malo's Cuban and shrugs off his tastes as the natural result of growing up in Miami with parents "young and hip enough to listen to really cool records") always pushed at Music City's blander-is-better protocol. But even if you had doubts--maybe you were holding out for the band's big TNN break, or hoping the consistently good press the band got would convince an industry more attuned to the bottom line and to producing more Garths and Randys and Rebas--the Mavericks' swan song, 1998's Trampoline, should've sealed the deal: Kicking off with a high-wattage Roy Orbison homage called "Dance the Night Away," the record sounded like a guy getting very tired of limiting himself, a guy for whom the term "country" just didn't cut it, and probably hadn't for a while. Still, speaking a couple of days after a packed performance at New York City's Irving Plaza that counted as many cowboy boots as Kenneth Coles, Malo's reserved, courteous even, about his former home.
"I've definitely had my differences with the Nashville...establishment," he says, searching for the right word with a little knowing laugh, "but this record had nothing to do with it. It's not Nashville--it didn't come out of there, nor should it come out of there. Nashville should try to make country music." Though I'm inclined to take Malo at his word--when his publicist showed him a hammy caricature that accompanied a recent blurb in The New Yorker, Malo chortled and asked for a print of the image to hang on his wall--I'm not entirely convinced by his diplomacy--Today just sounds too much like the work of a freed spirit not to have been made by someone recently acquainted with creative autonomy. A deep-breathing bouillabaisse of classic pop bounce, traditional Cuban sway, dressed-up country twang and, unexpectedly and maybe most gratifyingly, fat-Elvis vocal bombast, the thing practically vibrates with glee, an honest-to-goodness confluence of pitch-perfect songwriting, top-notch playing and nuanced production. It's also a record that, quite a bit like Lynne's I Am Shelby Lynne, fuses styles so seamlessly you hardly notice that someone had to have the idea to do it.
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Onstage, Malo and his crack band--which boasts Los Lobos utility man Steve Berlin, who co-produced Today with Malo, and members of the all-star Latin-music ensemble Los Super Seven, to which Malo belongs--flaunt that fusion: In New York they segued a joyous "Guantanamera" into a ripping "Twist and Shout," holding back a sec to make room for a plonky free-jazz piano solo, then sliding back into "Guantanamera" before turning an old Mavericks song into a ska number. And that was all after the disarmingly straight run through "Okie From Muskogee" that had the house catcalling for more. Convinced I can get more from him if I approach the question from the right angle, I ask Malo if that degree of stylistic variety was encouraged in the Mavericks days or if it was something he and his bandmates had to fight to preserve.
"As free as the Mavericks were to do a lot of different things," he explains, "I think there was a huge price to pay. The Mavericks had been successful in one genre, and once you've had success in one genre, especially country, it's difficult to venture out of that genre. I mean, it was easy for us--playing live we'd always be trying different things. But it was difficult for the label and the industry; it was hard to figure out what to do with us. When I made this record, I wanted to file it under pop, because once you're in pop, the gloves are pretty much off--you can do whatever you want. That was the whole point of making a record like this: having that freedom. That's what I live for; that's what I've always wanted: the real freedom to do whatever I want."
I'm actually a little disappointed: He said exactly what I wanted while being a perfect gentleman. Where's the anger, I think? The resentment? The skepticism that led Lynne to write the scathing "Star Broker," which was biting enough to get withdrawn from her new Love, Shelby? Malo only gets close to fiery when talk turns to his fans.
"The industry underestimates fans and their ability to grasp the kind of thing that we're doing," he says. "I've never said this was gonna be a country record, nor should people expect it to be. If that's what they expect, they're obviously gonna be disappointed. But the thing about the Mavericks fans and my fans, we could do whatever we wanted and they're gonna love it, as long as it came from an honest place. That'll speak for itself. It's not something that's contrived or calculated." He thinks for a second, and I'm sure I see a memory of Nashville flash in his eyes. "I sometimes wish I were more calculated in my life," he admits gently. "I'd probably have a lot more success. But I don't, and I never have been--I just go with what feels good at the moment."