Not-So-Little Rick Treviño y Su Familia
When it comes to the tale of Rick Treviño, there are many versions. The best known among them are the one with which he broke into the music business almost 10 years ago (Ricky Trevino, the country music "hat act"), and the most recent: Rick Treviño, Grammy-winning member of Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. Then there's the ever-present Rick Treviño, well-mannered young man, and the less well-known Rick Treviño, classically trained pianist. Bueno. But have you heard of the one that goes, Rick Treviño, cultural hybrid and border crosser? His mother has.
"Even though we live in an Anglo neighborhood, we're not Anglos," says Linda Treviño from her Jollyville home, where she and her husband Rick Treviño Sr. raised their son Rick and his siblings Adam and Crystal. "We're Mexicanos, and our children knew that."
A petite woman with delicate features, the enthusiasm with which she talks about her children is often larger than her just barely five-foot frame. Like how they were raised on tortillas, chorizo, their Gramma's tamales at Christmas, and menudo on New Year's Eve. Or how even though Rick's Spanish prior to an intensive language course taken in Mexico was "bien mocho" (broken), it's model now. Not bad considering Spanish wasn't the first language of the Treviño household.
Language wasn't the only barrier he traversed. Many of them were musical. Learning piano at early age, he was playing Bach and Beethoven by the time he was a teenager. Later, he picked up the guitar, dabbled with the clarinet, and played in rock & roll bands in junior and senior high school before moving on to country music. After a brief stint at Texas A&M, he dropped out of school at 19 to sign a recording contract with Sony. Which doesn't mean that led to "happily ever after."
"There was a lot of pressure on him because he was Hispanic," explains his mother. "When the Tejanos would come to see him, he shied away because they made him feel like, 'You don't speak Spanish, so you're not a Mexican.' Or 'How come you're not singing Tejano music?'
"Because he's singing country music," exclaims Linda Treviño. "That's what he loves to do! It doesn't mean he doesn't love his culture, or respect his culture, or the Tejanos and the people around him. I used to think, 'Why can't they just be proud of him?' He's opening doors for all of us."
And yet, the Tejano and Mexican music played at Treviño family gatherings was something he kept at a distance. Young Rick always admired Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and the percussive elements of Cuban piano, but Tejano or Mexican music was a territory he wasn't ready to cross into. It took a combination of personal and professional epiphanies to inspire Rick Treviño to reconsider his musical heritage.
In that sense, Treviño's current tale could be told as an "artist returning to his roots" story, but it's much more than that. His is the story of how one musician navigated personal and professional borders to face the music he'd ignored, and in turn, discovered the depth of his talent, and the true direction he wanted to take his music. The result of this discovery is Treviño's new album Mi Son, 10 Mexican and Cuban songs delivered with such deep abrazo y corazon, it's hard to imagine a time when this music did not always steal a place in his heart.
In 1998, Rick Treviño had it made. There was stability, thanks to his Sony contract signed in 1992 when he was exclusively a country music act. He and wife Karla just bought a house in West Austin, and looked forward to raising their then 1-year-old son, Luke.
A Made Man
"When Luke was born, I started to think, 'Hey, I'm responsible for raising this child,' and I wanted him to have a handle on his Latino culture," recalls Treviño.
Concurrent with his new fatherhood was his involvement with Los Super Seven -- Freddie Fender, Flaco Jimenez, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Joe Ely, and Ruben Ramos -- which came together to record a crowd-pleasing LP of classic Mexican tunes.
"It was a profound experience," says Treviño. "If Super Seven hadn't come around, I might not have had the push to look at this music."
Prior to Los Super Seven, he'd been content recording Spanish-language versions of his country albums. But the rush of working on the project, the joy of listening to the rhythms and stylings -- really hearing them for the first time -- inspired him to make it work on his country tunes. That's when he got a call from Sony.
"As I started to infuse my Mexican roots with country, they flat-out said, 'We don't believe in what you're doing musically and want to release you from the record company.'"
The call came one month after Los Super Seven won their first Grammy. At the time, country music acts were being released from their contracts left and right, but that didn't lessen the sting.
"I was devastated," Treviño remembers. "I remember my wife and little boy were playing in the other room, and I walked in there and said, 'I lost my deal,' and started to cry. It was my livelihood. We had this new baby and a house -- it was a huge disappointment."
Maybe if he'd cut his cloth to match the fashion of the Nashville music factory, things would have worked out differently. In fact, that's exactly the situation he found himself in when the Super Seven project came his way.
"Working with those players from Super Seven made me want to change my music, make it more me," he explains. "I didn't want to be George Strait, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, or Clay Walker. I wanted to be Rick, instead of something created in that assembly line process, instead of going through that mill."
He stops a moment, to digest what he has just said.
"When I started cutting with Sony, I think some of the albums lost the emotion that we first brought in. I mean, I'd probably go back in and do it the same way. I was exhilarated to be involved in it at the time, but I think when we went into the big, Nashville, music row, assembly line thing, we lost something."
Once the reality of losing his record contract sunk in, Treviño realized it was for the best.
"If the company is not supporting you musically, it's a bad situation to be in," he says. "I definitely was getting away from the bubble gum hat act thing. That really was what I wanted to get away from the most. But Nashville, they're not very innovative."
Rick Treviño Sr. saw his son's losing a label as one of those hard knocks the music business often doles out. The elder Treviño had worked as a Tejano entertainer in his earlier days, playing with a popular Houston-area band, Neto Perez & the Originals, during the Sixties and Seventies. He played bass and rhythm guitar, and occasionally belted out his rendition of "La Bamba." When Rick Jr. was three, his father would sometimes bring him onstage to watch him sing.
Touring with and opening for Little Joe y la Familia, the Originals frequently played the Stardust Ballroom, a Houston hot spot, but the pay wasn't always so great. When Treviño Sr. was offered a job in Austin as a systems analyst with IBM, he took it. Soon after, Neto Perez and several members of the band were killed in a car accident on their way to a gig.
"That could have been me if I'd stayed in the band," says Treviño ruefully.
It was Rick Sr. who first suspected Rick Jr. might have a talent for music, and he speaks of his namesake with understandable pride.
"Ever since he was a little kid, he would imitate Elvis with the broom handle and pretend like he was playing the guitar. I would watch him and I thought, you know he likes music. He had that little spark in him. That spark of music that you look for in a child. He seemed to like it and seemed to have a lot of natural ability."
The boy began piano lessons at age six, practicing the tedious scales and exercises that most kids would rather trade for running outdoors. Understandably, his parents remember their son as a little boy with prodigious talent and an unusual commitment to practice before play. When asked to confirm this, the former Little Ricky looks puzzled, then grins.
"Yeah right!" he laughs. "I practiced, but it was because of them.
"There were times when I wanted to be outside, and it was like, 'Nah-ah. Thirty minutes.' So, it was 30 minutes of me going," he mashes down on an invisible keyboard, "Whaaaaaaaa!
"My parents! I love them to death, but they were tough on me, man!"
By the time he was a teenager, time spent at the piano began to pay off. He'd become a skilled pianist, studying classical music and participating in performance competitions. He now saw the piano as a welcome challenge -- and a good way to meet girls.
"When I got to be 14, I started to go, 'Hey, I can play piano. I'm different,'" recounts Treviño. "Then I would come home and practice. 'I can get some girls! There's a talent show this year. I can play piano and instant girlfriend.' That's the truth when you're that age. You better believe I was going to practice, but when I was little, it wasn't so easy."
One thing both generations of Treviños agree on: Piano training is a valuable musical asset.
"It's hard to explain what piano training does," says Rick. "But I know if I wouldn't have spent 15 years practicing piano, I wouldn't have been able to pull [Mi Son] off now. I wouldn't have been able to walk into the studio with the Super Seven guys and pull that music off. There's no way I could have kept up with my career if it weren't for my piano background."
When Treviño was first approached to do the first Super Seven album, he jumped at the chance to work with Ely, Rosas and Hidalgo, and Doug Sahm, who sat in on a tune. Exploring his musical roots had never entered his mind. When the senior Treviño is asked whether he found this unusual, or even offensive, given his own background in Tejano music, he shrugs.
"To me, Tejano music has been an emotional kind of music," he explains. "My mother listened to it and my Dad, too. Rick wasn't familiar with the music as I understood it, because he was raised here with a bunch of Anglos, so he could not really relate to how I felt about Tejano music. It was just a different mindset. A different way that he grew up."
His son is much more candid.
"My dad was a Tejano musician and he loves Tex-Mex music, but to me, the reason I didn't like it was because I didn't associate it with positive things. I have a great relationship with my family, but very frequently, when we'd go back to Houston for family things, the Mexican music would come on, and there would be drinking and later on, a fight. So, I always associated Mexican music with being drunk and getting into fights. I couldn't associate it with something good.
"When it came to working on the music for the Super Seven, I learned that this music is so beautiful, musically and lyrically. It became a joy to be able to play that music and put my old feelings aside and appreciate it. The Super Seven had a profound impact on how I perceive my own Mexican-American culture."
Milton Walters, longtime piano player for Treviño and now his tour manager, speaks with excitement about the changes he's witnessed in Treviño's music.
"I think my relationship with him is kind of like watching a cousin or a little brother," Walters says over a plate of migas at Curra's Grill, in South Austin. "When he first started out, it used to be we'd set everything up and he'd come in and sing the tunes. Now he comes in and shows us what he wants to do. Now, we're jamming more."
In addition to promoting Mi Son, Treviño is at work on a country album with Raul Malo. There's no record deal in place, but with that comes greater creative freedom -- and some risk. Nevertheless, Treviño is determined to follow his instincts and see where they lead him, not only for his music career, but his personal life.
"Right after I lost my deal, I was watching TV with my son and George Strait came on and he said, 'There's Daddy,'" remembers Treviño. "When Luke said that, I thought to myself, I don't want my son to look at anybody who wears a cowboy hat, sings, plays guitar, and say 'There's my dad.' I want him to look at all those guys and be able to see me -- 'That's my dad, right there.'
"It was so profound at the time, since I was going in a different direction musically. When he said that, it all made sense."