- August 18, 2020
- Henry Carrigan
- Hear It First
by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley
Tish Hinojosa, Stephanie Urbina Jones, and Patricia Vonne weren’t planning on making an album when they played Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café in 2018. That night the three women had met up to celebrate Latina writers during Hispanic Heritage Month, but in a charmed moment Hinojosa, Urbina Jones, and Vonne “stumbled into something that was beyond us,” recalls Urbina Jones, “and it was magic.” The next day, she says, they had bookings at theaters and other venues. Now, on August 21, The Texicana Mamas release their self-titled debut album, and it’s a joyous celebration of love, family, and cultural heritage. The Mamas’ voices soar and swoop around each other, floating along simple guitar strums or rollicking Mariachi rhythms.
Hinojosa, Urbina Jones, and Vonne each brings her own musical influences to the group, from folk, flamenco, and country to conjuto, mariachi, and rock and roll. According to Urbina Jones, “All three of us have been successful songwriters and artists in our own careers. We serendipitously came together and quickly realized that there was something very special not only about the combination of our voices, but also in the love and celebration of our Mexican-American roots in music. It felt like destiny and the perfect time to share our bicultural story in song during this unprecedented time in our country.”
Just over a year after that first night at the Bluebird, the Mamas were performing in various venues at the 2019 Americana Music Association Festival and Conference. Steve Fishell, who runs Imagine Recordings in Nashville, invited them to record a few tracks there. “Imagine Recordings invites a small group of people, maybe 25-30, to witness the recording process at Sound Stage Studios. We bring at least one original and one cover to record.” One of the songs they took that night was “Esperanza (Hope).” The song opens sparsely with mournful guitars and Urbina Jones’ aching vocals. Before long, the song dances off on a soaring conjunto vibe to mimic the urgent movement of a mother and daughter as they hurry to cross the Rio Grande. The song illustrates the hope that mother and daughter carry in their hearts not only for freedom in a new place but also the hope that they can safely cross the river.
One of the other songs they recorded that night at Imagine Recordings was “Viva La Patria.” The song opens with the Mamas’s soaring a cappella vocals before the song blossoms into a spright and brisk Mariachi groove, celebrating homeland and family: “Through the desert to the sierra/Walking our land/With sweat and nobility/Your family is your strength/Long live our homeland.” Says Urbina Jones, “Tish and Patricia wrote the song to record at Sound Stage. It’s a Spanish version of ‘This Land is Your Land.’”
The album opens with the rollicking, dance-across-the-floor “Cocina de Amor” (“Kitchen of Love”), with the women creating the warm familiarity and welcoming love of their kitchens. “We wrote in Tish’s kitchen in about 45 minutes,” recalls Urbina Jones. They sang out all the food or activities people bring to the kitchen—“Tequila! Familia! Sangria!—that make it the place where friends and families gather to celebrate all the many little joys of life. Vonne, who is a filmmaker, made a video with footage of people in kitchens around the world.
That night in 2018 at the Bluebird, The Mamas played “The Life.” They invited James Slater, who was also there that night—“he’s been our godfather,” says Urbina Jones—to play with them on the number (he also plays on the song on the album). The simplicity and the beauty of the song floats along the sparse sonic spaciousness of the guitars and vocals. “This is one of the songs he wrote and Kenny Chesney recorded,” Urbina Jones says. “It represents the spirit of our culture, its simplicity and honesty.”
“American Dream” unfurls an epic of immigration and freedom. It’s written by Mario Domm—“the Billy Joel of Mexico,” says Urbina Jones—and Alberto Kreimerman and his son Luis. According to Urbina Jones, the song was going to be a simple guitar with a vocal, “but I kept hearing the Honky Tonk Mariachis on it.” This is a story that needs to be told, she emphasizes. The music spirals higher and higher, mimicking the yearning for freedom and the desperation and hope of the immigrant’s journey: “Some days I’m strong, some days I’m falling/’Til I take my last breath, freedom is calling.” “The week COVID hit,” says Urbina Jones, “we were in Mission, Texas, making a video for the song. The Hermes Music Foundation, run by Kreimerman, sponsored the video. As we were shooting the video, seven people were arrested in front of us, which really showed how timely the song is.”
“Amor Sin Fronteras” (“Love Without Borders”) is a cantina love song that captures the poignant give-and-take between immigrants and undocumented workers and the bonds they have formed with those for whom they work in the US, while “Abundancia (Abundance)” floats like a lullaby, the singers’ voices circling upward and upward, transporting us momentarily out of the darkness and despair of life to the brightness of the light that shines beyond the dark. The storms, the song promises, make way for a sunny day. Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca appear on the jaunty, scampering celebration of friendship “Amigas De Corazon,” while “Cancion Mariachi,” written by Los Lobos for the film Desperado, directed by Vonne’s brother, Robert Rodriguez, celebrates song itself. The album closes with The Texicana Mamas’ version of Linda Ronstadt’s “Lo Siento Mi Vida.” “It’s the perfect way to the end the album,” reflects Urbina Jones. “Linda Ronstadt is a very popular Latina singer and writer, and we knew we wanted her song to be on the album.”
The Texicana Mamas’ vision for the album is clear: to celebrate their heritage and to bring the beauty of the music to others. Urbina Jones says, “we wanted to be a voice for our people and our country; to follow the threads of love.” The Texicana Mamas is an album for our time, for it captures brilliantly the enduring beauty of small moments of our lives woven into a fraying social fabric in which love is the thread that holds the promise for unity and hope.