Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Los Fantasmas del Valle

Los Fantasmas del Valle
Los Fantasmas del Valle have been making appearances in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond since the late 1960's. While other conjunto acts from that era have faded away, this one just keeps floating along, decade after decade.

"This conjunto continues to set the trend for the rest to follow," South Texas Conjunto Association president Lupe Saenz said. "They continue to record new music and evolve into the new era as Rodney, the accordionist, becomes the new lead singer and Bobby Salinas, on bajo, keeps the group moving forward."

From the original line-up, only one member still has a presence on stage.

Hector Barron was born to Rodencia "Lencha" and Alfredo Barron on November 24, 1943 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but was raised in San Benito and Mercedes. His parents separated shortly after he was born. He was raised by his single mother until she passed away in 1949. He would soon find himself living with his grandparents, Jose and Dolores Rivera.

"I remember that when my mom was alive, I used to go (up north for work) with her and a bunch of tios," Barron, band leader, vocalist and bass player, said. "When she passed away, my grandparents started going. They didn't go when me and my mom went (at first)."

First state Barron encountered outside of Texas was Arkansas. Then around 1953, he began traveling farther up north. He migrated to Indiana, Ohio and Michigan to work on the fields.

"I loved to sing while I was working, picking cotton, chopping beets, I was always singing," Barron said. "I used to sing those songs from Elvis Presley." (laughs)

An only child, Barron met lifelong friend Julian Figueroa when his family moved to Mercedes in the mid-1950's. The two bonded over jugando canicas in their barrio. As they got older, they stopped playing with marbles and started playing with musical instruments.

Los dos amigos picked up the bajo-sexto during their teenage years. Barron would later turned to the bass. Both were self-taught.

In the 1960's, the two teamed up with accordionist Gilberto Rodriguez, another Mercedes musician, to start a band together.

"He was a little older than me," Barron said. "Pero we used to live in the same barrio in Mercedes. We got together and played at the bars."

Rodriguez remembers being introduced to the pair through a friend named Mario Gonzalez.

"I liked the way they sing," Rodriguez said. "We started practicing under my name, which is Gilberto Rodriguez, and I think we made our first record with Discos Ideal from San Benito."

Their next recording was far more significant. They arrived at Gilberto Perez's Nuevo Records studios and recorded "Mis Pasos Andaran", a composition by Julian Garcia, in 1968. This eerie tune tells the tale of a man who died but comes back as a ghost to haunt his girlfriend.

After they finished recording at the studio, Alejandro Perez, Gilberto's brother, asked "¿Por que no les ponemos Los Fantasmas del Valle?" ("How come we don't name y'all The Ghosts of the Valley?") That name stuck for Barron, Rodriguez, Figueroa and Cruz Gonzalez.

"That's the song that the Fantasmas got very famous for," Rodriguez said of "Mis Pasos Andaran". "(After the song's success) I did a couple of tours with them. We went to Chicago, Michigan, Florida. So I went around with them."

The dynamic of the band was altered after one of those tours.

"(Rodriguez) got sick and he quit playing, so I took over the group," Barron said. "Pos yo y Julian los quedamos con Los Fantasmas del Valle." ("Well Julian and myself stayed with Los Fantasmas del Valle.")

Rodriguez says there was a difference of a opinion and he gave his two weeks notice to Barron. He later decided to form Los Originales de Gilberto Rodriguez.

Many different accordionists filled that hole until 1975, when Mike Gonzalez took over that position and made it his own.

With such a crowded conjunto scene here in the Valley, the band was struggling to break through.

"We struggled for a lot of years," Barron said. "'Taba duro porque estas comenzando y nadie te quiere grabrar." ("It was tough because you're starting off and nobody wants to record you.")

Barron was forced to launch Cucuy Records in the 1970's to provide his faction with a platform. At different points in their existence, the group would find themselves recording for Canasta Records, Reloj, Hacienda Records, Joey Records and JB Records. They currently record for Latin World Records. Overall, Barron estimates to have recorded over 60 releases, including 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and CD's.

Barron notes that at first, he would look for inspiration in musicians he admired like Gilberto Perez, Ruben Vela and Tony De La Rosa. After a few years of performing, he was able to branch out and create an original style for his brand of conjunto music. It's a form of music that has strong roots in the culture of South Texas.

Their biggest exito (hit) came in 1991 when they released the album Bellos Recuerdos. The title track, composed by Ramon Medina, became their signature song. The story is about an adult looking back at his migrant worker childhood in the 1940's. Several scenes are illustrated, like picking cotton, the constant traveling, eating a hamburger and going to the movies.

"Esa cancion (That song) really helped us out," Barron said. "La gente grande, yo miraba gente que lloraban. Porque se acordaban de cuando estaban piscando algodon con sus padres." ("The older people, I would see them cry. Because they remembered when they would pick cotton with their parents.")

In 1993, Que Bonitos Años followed, which dealt with a similar theme of nostalgia and migrant work.

After being in the gang for 25 years, Gonzalez had to step away after becoming ill. Rodney "El Cucuy" Rodriguez stepped in for Gonzalez after Barron took a recommendation from his friend Freddie Gonzalez.

Barron would first come face to face with Rodriguez at the Burger King in Pharr on I Road, now called Veterans Road. That day, Rodriguez's father first introduced himself to the musicians.

"The Fantasmas thought that my dad was actually me," Rodriguez said. "That he was the guy that was going to audition. Dice mi apa, 'Pues dejame traer a mi hijo.'" ("My dad said, 'Well let me go get my son.'")

The 15-year old Rodriguez hopped out of the car, surprising the group.

"I'm short, and I look younger than I am," Rodriguez said with a slight laugh.

Barron remembers seeing Rodriguez and thinking,"Esta bien chiquito, I think he weighs about 75 lbs." (laughs) He was curious if Rodriguez could even carry an accordion.

Even though Barron had some doubt, they still went to Gonzalez's house to see what this teenager from Rio Grande City was capable of. Rodriguez strapped on the accordion, Barron grabbed a bajo-sexto, and asked, "Sabes (Do you know) 'Bellos Recuerdos'?" Rodriguez answered, "Pos, si. (Well, yes.)"

"Me arranque con ella," ("I started shredding it,") Rodriguez said. "They were surprised. They were like, 'O lo hizo igualito.' No mas oyeron esa y me dijo Hector, 'Alistate pa' el weekend.' Asi fue la cosa." ("'Oh, he did it exactly the same (as Gonzalez).' They just heard it and Hector told me, 'Get ready for the weekend.' That's how it went down.")

A few weeks later, the conjunto took off to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the Summer of 2000.

"We went to represent the Tejano part (of this country)," Rodriguez said. "There was a lot of cultural stuff, like matachines. It was awesome, all kinds of people. They were all having a ball with the music. It was an awesome experience."

Tragedies arose in the 2000's for Los Fantasmas del Valle. In 2001, Gonzalez passed away and in 2010, Figueroa bowed out from the spotlight after suffering a stroke. Bobby Salinas, a former member of Los Dos Gilbertos, covered the bajo-sexto playing duties.

One day Salinas was called on the phone and asked if he could help out one weekend.

"Dije, 'Yeah'," Salinas said. "They asked, 'How many songs do you know from us.' I said, 'Pos ni una.'" ("'Well none of them.'") (laughs)

Despite Salinas not knowing any of their repertoire, the band liked what they heard from him. He's stuck around for the past five years.

"It feels real good," Salinas said of his time with the group. "I'm thrilled being with Los Fantasmas and I'm glad they enjoy what I'm doing, tocando y cantando (playing and singing)."

Salinas and Rodriguez have helped keep the conjunto crisp in recent años.

"If there is any change (in the style), it's probably un poquito (a little bit more) more progressive," Salinas said. "Figueroa tocaba el bajo en una manera y yo toco el bajo de otra manera." ("Figueroa played the bajo one way and I play it another way.")

The retired Figueroa still keeps up with what his old camaradas (friends) are up to.

"Viene Hector por mi y me lleva a pasear pa' alla," ("Hector comes for me and gives me a ride (to a show),") Figueroa said softly.

Barron and Figueroa. 
Other members of this current incarnation of Los Fantasmas del Valle include Martin Cortez on the drums and Benito Fonseca on the bass guitar.

In their latest album Amplifique Tu Retrato (2014), Rodriguez and Salinas were handed over the vocal reigns from Barron for the title song.

"That's what I wanted to do," Rodriguez said. "I wanted people to hear como iba seguir el grupo (how this group was going to continue). That way if (Hector) ever gets out, they'll be familiar with the sound already. It won't catch (the audience) as much by surprise."

This past week on April 22, Barron celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary with his wife Graciela. He is currently celebrating the occasion in Louisiana. But he's already looking forward to next month, where he will lead his conjunto at shows in McAllen, Pharr, San Benito, Floresville, Sinton, San Antonio, Austin and Monterrey, Nuevo León.

"Because of his leadership in the conjunto, Hector is responsible for most of the success this conjunto has had for many years," Saenz said. "He ensured that the group remained constant and on course.  He never put up with nothing better than the best in his musicians. He pays them well and provides well. That is why this is still today the number one conjunto."

Looking back at the history of his ensemble, the moments that resonate the most with Barron are the difficulties he has faced. Disinterested recording labels, vehicles malfunctioning, losing instruments, the grueling road trips, the hardships that fell on his peers and so much more. He is proud that he's been able to persevere through it all, spirit in hand. While it's bound to happen at some point, he has no plans on disappearing from the stage anytime soon.

"I'm the only one from the original band left," Barron said. "Vamos a seguirle dando, a ver hasta cuando dios los deja." ("We are going to keep going, we'll see until how long God allows us to.")
Los Fantasmas del Valle at the NMCAC in San Benito.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Big Squeeze" Finals Coming Up With Two Valley Natives‏

Josue Garcia.
 On April 3, Texas Folklife announced the finalists for this season's "Big Squeeze" accordion contest. In the Conjunto (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto music) category, four were chosen and two happened to be from the Rio Grande Valley.

Raul Resendez is a 14-year-old accordionist and is currently attending La Joya High School. Residing in Palmview, he's been picking at the accordion for three years.

"Most of my life I have been listening to conjunto music," Resendez said. "Most of my family is Hispanic, so it runs through my family roots."

One of his key inspirations has been accordionist Beto Zapata from Grupo Pesado.

"I love the way the guy plays," Resendez said. "I always wanted to learn how to play like that. He got me interested in playing the accordion."

While Resendez learned the accordion on his own, he received guidance from his abuelo Ignacio Resendez.

"He gave me advice to play better and lose my nervousness of playing in front of an audience," Resendez said.

In the conjunto program at La Joya High School, he's also been helped by instructor Cecilio "Chilo" Garza, formely of Los Kasinos.

La Feria High School student Josue Garcia is 15 years old, and has been playing the accordion for the past three years. Growing up in La Feria, he was surrounded by conjunto music.

"It was always about conjunto," Garcia said. "We would go to parties, we were in the car, we were at the house, there was always conjunto. At first, I'm not going to lie, I wasn't a big fan of it. Because it wasn't 'in'. But after a while, it just became a part of me."

When asked if there was one specific person that got him interested in conjunto music, he pointed to his brother Benito.

"I'd always hear him (playing music)," Garcia said. "I just picked (the accordion) up from there."

Garcia is self-taught but credits accordionists Jose Luis Chavez, Joe Sanchez of Los Angeles del Sur and Juan Antonio Tapia with mentoring him.

"They are all great friends to me," Garcia said. "Anything that I am playing, they make sure to guide me in the right direction or give me tips."

Resendez and Garcia performed at the "Big Squeeze" Showcases in La Joya High School and Los Fresnos High School, respectively. Both said they weren't nervous that day.

"I have to say they were all great musicians," Garcia said of those who auditioned. "I guess, in the end, I came out as one of the lucky ones."

These two Valley natives will compete for the grand prize with Brandon Betancourt, 17, from Houston, and Rito Peña, 16, from San Antonio, at the "Big Squeeze" Finals on April 25 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. In the Polka (German, Czech and Polish music) class, the three contestants who advanced are: Brandon Hoddle, 20, from Holland; Rebecca Huck, 21, from Harker Heights; and Chris Trojacek, 20, from Ennis. For Zydeco (Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music), the three nominees are: Donovan Bourque, 14, from Beaumont; Chloe Johnson, age 14, from Moscow; and Elizabeth Kelley, age 16, from Port Neches.

The three champions that will be crowned, one per category, will be awarded with a brand-new Hohner accordion, a cash prize, and career-advancing opportunities.

Both of these young prodigies are eager to make the trip to Austin later this month.

"I've been counting the days, but it seems like each day is going by slower and slower," Garcia said.

Resendez added, "I'm really excited, I've been waiting for a big chance like this."

Raul Resendez.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Day 1 of Fiesta de la Flor

Thousands of fans from all around the world attended the Fiesta de la Flor music festival this past Friday night.

This event celebrated late Tejano icon Selena, on the week where she would have turned 44 if she were still alive today.

One fan in attendance came all the way from Hawaii for this special gathering. Pedro Haro grew up in the island of Maui but now resides in Oahu.

"I was growing up in Hawaii and there is not a lot of Mexican culture over there," Haro said. "When I watched the [Selena] movie it was like, 'Wow I didn't realize this [about the culture].' Because we didn't grow up around it. It made me feel good about my culture and all of those things. She embodies all those positive things about Latino culture."

The festival opened up with Steven James & The Jaded, of Corpus Christi. The indie rock band played some material from their latest album Baby L.A.

Next up was Las Fenix of Houston. This Tejano group consists of the Rodriguez sisters — Nadia, Lesli, Adela, Berna and Anahi.

"Selena is one of a kind," Nadia told me shortly before the event. "She is one in a million, really. Definitely growing up, as sisters, we listened to her music. It's one of the reasons why we did get involved in music."

The quintet played many cumbias throughout their set, including Fito Olivares' classic "Juana La Cubana". They also played some standard rancheras and their versions of popular Selena songs like "Baile Esta Cumbia" and "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom". Before presenting their covers they would say they were "con el sabor de Las Fenix" ("with the flavor of Las Fenix"). They stole the show with their dynamic performance.

Los Lobos were the final act of the evening. They slowed the tempo down early on but warmed up as they moved forward. Some of the songs they performed included "The Neighborhood", "Chuco's Cumbia", "Come On, Let's Go", "Yo Canto", and "Sabor A Mi".

As Los Lobos introduced special guests bajo-sexto maestro Max Baca and his nephew, accordionist Josh Baca, the festival hosts announced that they would be cutting the evening short due to weather concerns. The musicians on stage asked if they could at least play one more song, which ended up being "La Bamba". The Baca duo shined on their respective solos, as lightning lit up the sky and the event came to an early close.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Conversation with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

Beat The Champ (2015)

Earlier this week, Merge Records released The Mountain Goats new album Beat The Champ. This new release from the celebrated indie rock band features songs about professional wrestling, including figures like Chavo Guerrero, Bruiser Brody, Luna Vachon and Bull Ramos. A few weeks ago, I spoke with singer-songwriter John Darnielle about his own personal history with professional wrestling.

Eduardo Martinez: To start things off, "Ox Baker Triumpth" (in the Babylon Springs EP from 2006), was this the first wrestling song you recorded?

John Darnielle: I think that was it. I'm trying to think, I made a lot of references to wrestling stuff in other stuff but I think that was the first one.

EM: He recently passed away not too long ago. What was it that made you want to write that song, and do you have any specific memories of Baker himself?

JD: The deal with me and Ox Baker is when I was growing up watching wrestling on the West Coast, there was no internet, there was no national broadcast. It was all regional, there was no such thing as national wrestling. So you heard about these other dudes through magazines. All the magazines were from the East Coast. The magazines would write about King Kong Brody, Hulk Hogan when he was young, Bob Backlund was the champion. NWA was the South, WWF was the main Eastern territory. The magazines didn't really write about us at all.

So Ox Baker was one of the dudes that you would see. He was the hated villain. You would see pictures of this guy, you'd never see him wrestle. He was just a mean looking bald dude with a mustache. And then one day, I'm watching wrestling on Saturday morning, and there is an interview with Ox Baker because he's coming to town. So here is this wrestler I've seen pictures of, like the Boogeyman. He's going to come and beat on Chavo Guerrero. Whoever the villain was that came to town, he would set his sights on Chavo Guerrero or Al Madril. I was petrified of this dude and he was very violent in talking. He talked about how he was going to make people bleed. That was his whole shtick, him and Greg Valentine. They cared less about winning, they just wanted to hurt their opponent.

It turns out, as in a lot of the heels, they always turn out to be the nicest guys in real life. Ox Baker was a pussycat of a man, a really nice guy who loved people. So that was my one experience, I didn't even ever see him wrestle, I just saw this one interview. I was scared of this guy.

Ox Baker.

EM: Since you mentioned the magazines, these magazines back then really built these guys up as larger than life characters before you even saw them live.

JD: Oh yeah the magazines, the thing is that this is a different world that we get sentimental about now 'cause you don't remember what it was like to not actually be able to have access to information. But it really was the case that you had to use your imagination a lot. You would get a magazine,  I didn't have a subscription, I couldn't get my parents to buy me a magazine every week or anything. You'd get one magazine and you'd read every page of it. (laughs) You read all the ads, pen pal ads, look at all the lists of names, and try to figure out as much as you could. But of course what you figured out, you would have to make up half of it. To me that was really exciting, you were forced to tell stories to yourself. Wrestling magazines were kind of a big deal. They had ads for "Apartment Wrestling". Do you know what I'm talking about?

EM: Yeah I do. (laughs)

JD: That wasn't exactly wrestling, that was an excuse to look at women in bikinis. They said, "Here is this 'Apartment Wrestling' match that was really vicious. You have to see it!" It was just for guys that don't want to be honest with themselves and buy a Playboy. I didn't know that (as a kid), I was, "Oh okay, there is some underground world where people are fighting in apartments. Cool, that's kind of weird." If you were 10, 11 years old, it made adulthood seem like a very weird place, which I think is kind of good.

EM: One thing I found interesting, looking back at some of the old magazine covers, is that some of them were pretty gory, bloody.

JD: Oh yeah the blood sells, man. That's the thing you learn, when you bleed, everyone wants to see you bleed (laughs). There were some bleeders like Abdullah the Butcher, a big villain at that time, he would bleed a lot. If you were in a match with The Sheik then you were going to bleed.

The Sheik carving up one of his opponents.

I saw very little (blood). Before my time, Freddie Blassie was a big bloody guy but he moved East. The scientific matches were a little more popular in L.A. than they were elsewhere 'cause L.A. was lucha territory. Mil Mascaras was really popular and he had a very scientific style. He didn't bleed.

EM: How did you get drawn into wrestling as a child?

JD: It was on TV, it was pre-cable. Cable came to Southern California very late because the TV stations were powerful in California, so they kept cable out until, I want to say, '84. Which was late for cable, everybody else had cable a couple of years before that. We would watch UHF a lot. The UHF stations were the ones higher than 13 and they were usually local stations. They were weirder and also served more specific communities.

We had Channel 18, which (had Maharishi Mahesh) Yogi, who was this guy who did transcendental meditation. He would rent like six hours of time a day on Channel 18 and the rest would be Korean programming. And then it was Channel 34 KMEX, which was and remains the Spanish-language channel, when there weren't Spanish-language channels elsewhere in the country, (at least not) too many of them. KMEX was huge and they would show 90 minutes of wrestling every Saturday morning, and then Channel 56 KDOC would show an hour long broadcast. So I would watch the English broadcast and the full length Spanish broadcast, that would show more matches and had legendary announcers.

EM: At what point, did you think to yourself, "I guess I'm going to make a wrestling album."?

JD: I never say, "I'm gonna write this kind of album." I wrote a song, it was "Southwestern Territory" and then I wrote "Hair Match". It may have been the other way around. I was like, "Wow you have two new songs and they are both about wrestling." So when I went to go write another song, I wrote another song about wrestling. So now I have three. So eventually you start to go, "Well I seem to be writing about something." Then after four or five, (I see) these are all about wrestling so I think that's what we're doing.

It's so risky, it felt like the sort of thing people would go, "Wait really?" You always want to be taking some small risks, you always want to do something that people would go, "Huh?" I still feel inspired thinking about this stuff. When I think about my old heroes, I feel really inspired, I feel really grateful. You grow older and you go, "That was a big thing to give a child hope, that's huge." And also to scare a child. To feel fear like a horror movie but it's fake. You get your experience but it can't actually hurt you. That's fucking awesome.

EM: Your new song ("The Legend of Chavo Guerrero") is not set in the 70's, you're looking back on it now from these days, decades removed. What was it about those days in wrestling and Chavo specifically that has resonated with you to this day?

JD: When I say he was my hero, that was my hero. He really was. My step-father's father had been a wrestling promoter, I knew about kayfabe. I knew that people weren't really getting hurt, although I would sit there like, "Well how much of it is real, how much is fake?" It's a real shame, most of the footage from those days of the Southern California territory was thrown away when Channel 56 changed hands, so you can't see much of it.

But there is an interview where Chavo Guerrero talks to Java Ruuk and he gets really mad. He stood for justice, which was a big deal for me personally but also in Southern California. We observed the grape boycott. I don't know if you know about this but if you were left-wing, you weren't supposed to eat grapes in the 70's because Cesar Chavez asked everybody to stop buying grapes, to support the strike of the grape pickers. And we did that, every right thinking household was like, "Okay we won't buy grapes." Chavo Guerrero was on the side of the people, he was one of those guys. I just loved him. He was scientific, he stood for justice, he always stood up for other people. He also had a strong family, which I was jealous of. He and his brothers, his father, they all appeared together and always had each other's backs. I was pretty envious of that, it looked like a neat way to live (laughs).

He would wrestle fair, the cheater would cheat just enough that Chavo would say, "Fuck this!" (laughs) and start breaking the rules, throwing punches. That was always the most exciting moment when Chavo would fight fire with fire. It was sort of your dream as a kid to be able to say, "Well I played fair until you pushed me too far, now I gotta do what I gotta do."

EM: Did you watch wrestling with your friends or family members, or was it something you did on your own?

JD: My step-father, he was not really a great figure in my family, but at the same time, relationships are complex and one of the things that we did together was go see wrestling. His father had been a wrestling promoter in Indiana in the '50's. So we would go into the Olympic and see the matches. I didn't have any friends who were into it, I had one. This is kind of bittersweet. So growing up in Southern California in the 70's, there was a lot of parents that were concerned about the effects of television on children. My friend, he really wanted to be into wrestling. It seemed cool to him but his parents didn't have a TV. So he didn't see any, he would just look at the magazines and pick his favorite. His favorite was Mil Mascaras. He would ask me questions about it. We went to see the matches together, he went ape, it was totally cool. But yeah, he was the only friend of mine that was into it, wrestling was not cool when I was a kid. (laughs)

EM: There was this great Jerry Lawler interview I once saw from the 1980's. It was after a match with Super Destroyer, where he was talking about how once after losing a match, a fan came up to him to tell him how much it hurt to see him lose. As a child, how did it feel to you when your favorites were in trouble in the ring?

JD: This is a thing in wrestling, I don't know if they do as much of it anymore, but the good guy would get knocked out until he was out, and they'd still be kicking him. That was painful! You were watching them kill your hero. The announcer dude on KMEX, that would be when he would break into English. I was studying Spanish at the time in Jr. High, 7th and 8th grade. I was really good at it, I got straight A's. I would be watching the broadcast, trying to pick up as much as I could but I was not at that level yet. But he would break into English when he got really upset, "Someone should stop him!" I'd be, "Oh my god, he's trying to make sure the word gets out that this has to be stopped." It was always really, really exciting.

The thing is when that would happen, I feel like in the South, they would let that go on longer. I've watched old matches where you'll see the villain was just going off on the good guy and he's out cold. When it would be Chavo, his brother Hector, Mando or Eddy would always come rushing in, the brothers would all show up. Hector had this fury and long hair, he would come running to the side of the ring, like, "Whose ass do I have to kick?" Pretty exciting (laughs).

EM: Do you see some elements of dream in pro wrestling?

JD: Sure, wrestling is like theater. It's live, it takes place where things are scripted. In your day you might have a couple of dramatic things happen but your days don't follow some script where everything that happens is important. Whereas in a play and in wrestling, anything anybody says moves the action along. It's sort of dream-like in that way.

I think things became more dream-like in the '80's. In the 70's, it was kind of more boring in a good way. There was long sections where it's just guys circling each other, getting ready to wrestle. I feel like they would make you wait longer for the payoff. It was less dream-like then. It's weird, wrestling is profoundly weird. You sit watching these guys circle each other and fight for this thing that nobody even really cares about, which was kind of cool. It was very cult.

EM: In "Heel Turn 2", you go over the idea of turning heel, and being out there in front of an audience that hates you and wants to see you dead. Do you feel heels are a lot more fun and needed more to draw and make things interesting?

JD: Well you have to have both, although again the Southern California territory was a little different. There was a heel named Freddie Blassie who was such a popular heel that he became a face. He was so popular in Southern California, so his heel was John Tolos. They had one of the highest gates in the history of Southern California sports when they wrestled at the Coliseum (on 8/27/71). I feel like the wrestling I grew up with was more closely related to Mexican wrestling. The hero is celebrated — El Santo, Blue Demon. These guys are heroes. The villain is great, everyone loves a good villain and hates on him. But I feel like Mil Mascaras, all these guys, people loved the hero in Southern California. The Guerrero family, those guys were all faces, they were all extraordinarily popular. You never saw heat like Guerrero vs (Roddy) Piper. When Piper was just coming up, him and Chavo, that was the rivalry.

EM: Now when you watch Showtime boxing, and see Jimmy Lennon Jr. there, do you ever get flashbacks to seeing Jimmy Lennon Sr. when you saw him live?

JD: Oh yes, I met Jimmy Lennon Sr., he signed my program. He was the announcer at the Olympic. The other thing about the Olympic was boxing. Southern California boxing in the 70's is a giant under story. "Pipino" Cuevas, all these guys, they weren't nationwide names so much but in Southern California they were titans. You can't even imagine how popular they were. And Jimmy Lennon was the man at every one of those matches. So Jimmy Lennon Jr. sounds a lot like his dad but his dad hits this note. If you grew up listening to that stuff, it's just the stuff! It's the sound of excitement.

EM: Did you get into boxing during the same period when you were still regularly watching wrestling?

JD: I enjoyed it but I didn't watch as much of it. Wrestling was the best because boxing, it didn't have the storyline. The storyline is real so if your guy is getting pummeled he can't just all of a sudden dig deep down and rise above it. You can't do that, you're getting your ass beat. Whereas in wrestling you could watch your guy get beaten down to the floor and you go, "Oh my god Chavo is down, he can't get up." But then he can reach down to his gut and find that little extra measure and get up. In boxing you can't do that, you get knocked out. I liked boxing but it didn't have the good and evil that wrestling had. That's the thing about wrestling, especially back then, it was so clear cut. The bad guys didn't even care if they won, they just wanted to beat people up. They are wrong, they are wrong in their minds. The good guys are there to wrestle, to have fun but also to punish the bad guys for being bad. It's a very satisfying sport. When you're a kid, a heel represents everything that is wrong with the world and the face is the guy who is going to set it right.

EM: Do you think a good pro wrestler, a good babyface, probably has to display some self-destructive behavior in the ring, both the character and the real life person?

JD: Yeah, well wrestling is one of those sports like boxing. People talk about it being fake but you know what's not fake? Landing on your neck a bunch of times. You sacrifice your body to be a wrestler. In a sense it's like music. If you tour so much that you can't hold down a regular job, after a certain number of years if you go apply for a job, they say what have you been doing the last 7 years. "Well I was touring." And they go, "Okay what was your band." And you go, "The Mountain Goats." They go, "Well I never heard of you." (laughs) They say, "You don't like to work."

This is a thing that people give their entire lives to. Which is kind of beautiful. When you look at it, it's kind of cartoonish, but its a cartoon where people are sacrificing their entire bodies and lives. It's like a lot of art, it's a beautiful gift. But it's also a gift that's sort of making sure to meet you at a fun place. It's not trying to bigger than it is. It's a good time.

EM: I was pleasantly surprised to see a song ("The Ballad of Bull Ramos") about Bull Ramos, who is pretty obscure. What was it about what his career, or post-career that made you want to celebrate him?

JD: As always, it turns out it was because of Chavo. Whoever was beating on my dude is a guy I was interested in. For one thing he's a big dude, really huge. He was a terrorizing heel. Bull Ramos would do what was then called an "Indian Rope" match. He would do this rope match where the guys would be tied by the ankle. They can't get away from each other, that's a scary match. He had a look — a pony-tail and a whip! It was a wicked looking thing. He had this whip! Of course you can't actually whip a person, you can't really fake a whipping. But he would crack the whip. I would look at that thing and it's scary as hell.

He's a guy that post-kayfabe, in the age of the internet, you look it up, "Well who was the nicest guy in the world?" "Bull Ramos was." A cool dude, nothing but kind words from everybody. He also found a way out. He ran a wreck yard, he grew old, he got diabetes and lost a leg. It sounds like he made it. Making until the end is a victory. I sort of wanted to celebrate the humanity of this guy.

Bull Ramos.

EM: A lot of fans have these very personal connections to you and your songs. How did it feel to you, as a fan of Chavo Guerrero, seeing him react with so much enthusiasm to your song on Twitter?

JD: It's almost impossible to tell you what that did for my heart. I had a girlfriend from Michoacán in the 80's and one of the things we bonded about was Chavo Guerrero. In our early dates I was like, "I used to be into wrestling." "Oh who did you like?" "Chavo Guerrero." He was a huge deal in my life for a very long time. Then I sort of moved on in my life. Then I write this song, I figured it would get to him. He goes nuts. I was so ... I can't even tell you. I cried. This is my hero and he's a good dude. He is in his mid-60 and he's still a super positive guy. He still works! He's still working cards. I don't know, I cannot tell you what it felt like because it felt so amazing and great. He tweets my stuff, every time he does it it brings a huge a smile to my face.

EM: That's awesome.

JD: I wanted to call my ex, we're not in touch anymore at all. I wanted to call her and tell her, "Chavo Guerrero is writing to me!"

Mando, Gory, Chavo, Hector and Eddy.

Beat The Champ is out now and can be purchased at The Mountain Goats will hit Texas on 6/6-7 in Houston, 6/8 in Dallas, and 6/9 in Austin. For more information on these tour dates visit

Friday, April 3, 2015

Texas Folklife's "Big Squeeze" Finalists Announced!

Congratulations to the "Big Squeeze" Finalists!

Cajun/Zydeco category:

Donovan Bourque, age 14, from Beaumont.
Chloe Johnson, age 14, from Moscow.
Elizabeth Kelley, age 16, from Port Neches.

Polka category:
Brandon Hodde, age 20, from Holland.
Rebecca Huck, age 21, from Harker Heights.
Chris Trojacek, age 20, from Ennis.

Conjunto category:
Brandon Betancourt, age 17, from Houston.
Josue A. Garcia, age 15, from La Feria.
Rito Peña, age 16, from San Antonio.
Raul Resendez, age 14, from Palmview.

The "Grand Prize Winner" for each category will be crowned at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, on April 25.