Tres Chicas

Three Latina singers and a ringer

Part II of Cinco de Mayo became something of a mystery. The question was: Who are Austin's female equivalents to Ruben Ramos and Manuel "Cowboy" Donley? What women musicians/singers have played locally through the decades and become models for ensuing generations plying the same trade?

Since the 1995 shooting of Lake Jackson's Selena, Latina singers no longer fly under the radar. By that point, in fact, Austin had already cultivated rich talent such as Tish Hinojosa, and today, San Antonio's Rosie Flores tends to her career from her home here the in the state capital. Patricia Vonne blazes a similar path. Yet talking with a trio of local Latina singers – Sarah Fox, Mary Welch, and Joanna Ramirez – revealed remarkably disparate experiences that fit into the bigger community picture, one in which the female presence is crucial.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Rose Reyes of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Austin Latino Music Association may well be the most powerful woman in Austin's Latino community and the de facto mother figure. The ladies have it.

Of course, wherever there are Latin dolls, there are caballeros nearby, so we snuck in the Krayolas from just down the road apiece, where the sextet's first wave garage rock finds its revival unexpectedly topical.

If the sound's brown, it's also impressively diverse.

Sarah Fox: La Sirena

Tres Chicas
Photo by John Anderson

Sarah Fox counts on her résumé not one but two Grammy-winning projects. Teamed with husband and noted accordion player Joel Guzman, Fox's explosive duet with Joe Ely on "Deportee" helped ignite all-star Latin combine Los Super Seven on its triumphant eponymous debut in 1998, which won Best Mexican-American Music Performance in 1999. Guzman's Polkas, Gritos y Acordeónes, with David Lee Garza and Sunny Saucedo and produced by Guzman for the couple's label, Guzman Fox Records, won a Latin Grammy in 2005.

Fox didn't have to travel far from her native Temple to land in Austin in 1983, yet she's circumnavigated the broad horizon of Latino music with style and charisma. Moving through a variety of bands led Fox down a rootsy path of R&B, funk, modern jazz, and music influenced by her Cuban roots, as her songwriting developed and she worked both sides of the microphone. Most recently, she and Guzman collected acclaim for their stirring Latinology, their new Conjuntazzo ready for release this month.

The question of why Austin's Latino music scene has no veteran women as standard-bearers is a puzzle for Fox, who relates it to the experience of her mother, Guadalupe Reyna Castillo.

"She was a singer, but she gave it up, of course," relates Fox. "She got married and started having children. I was the last of nine kids, and she loved the fact that I showed an interest in music early. I lost her three years ago, but she was a powerful foundation, my biggest supporter. Her singing was incredible.

"The older women singers like my mom were like Lydia Mendoza or Laura Canales. The music industry is male-dominated, even more so in Latin music. I hate to say this, but the domination of males in my life was pretty hard – I had six brothers. Still, women are still trying to fight for their spot constantly, not just Latin women. I'm a sweetheart, but when it comes to certain business, I'm a hardass."

Mary Welch: La Curandera

Tres Chicas
Photo by John Anderson

Mary Welch and her band, Los Curanderos – Spanish for "the healers" – know that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. She's not afraid of pop or disco, because music that pleases many ears gives her a wider audience. Besides, she customizes those tunes with a Latin beat when she's not singing her own songs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

That's a departure for Welch, born Mary Vasquez in McAllen, who moved to Austin when she was 8. Raised Mormon instead of traditional Catholic, Welch hated church services, which nevertheless gave way to her singing hymns, an interest not particularly encouraged by those close to her. By 13, however, she would "somehow catch a ride to the Continental Club and hope that would be me someday up on that stage." At Travis High School, she shared lockers with Will Sexton.

"He was in Will & the Kill and used to let me into the club," she laughs. "I was really impressed with the bands I saw."

So impressed that she pursued singing, and by 1998, her sweet voice graced numerous acts, particularly Lubbock players Jo Carol Pierce, the Texana Dames, and the late, great Jesse Taylor, all of whom influenced her songwriting. 2003's Curame found Welch defining her signature blend of Latin rhythms and pop sensibility amid performances with gypsy guitarist Teye and her own side project, Scary Mary. She admits that plying a broad vision sometimes makes focus a tough discipline.

"I want to promote and preserve my heritage, but I feel a little awkward that I don't know the music as well as I probably should," says Welch. "I love singing Mexican ballads, and the ones I sing, I sing very well! We're not just a salsa act, we're not a Tejano band, we're not a cumbia band, and people here want their Tejano, want their salsa and cumbia."

Joanna Ramirez: El Corazón

Tres Chicas
Photo by John Anderson

Until two years ago, Joanna Ramirez was primarily known as a blues singer with a noted 2001 release called Satisfy Me. While headlining gigs were tough, she often sat in with the Nortons during their weekly run at the old Red's Scoot Inn and could be found playing and singing with Mary Welch y los Curanderos. Still, the mariachi music of her grandfather and father, not to mention the family's many years of playing a mixed bag of Latino, rock, and blues, paid off.

When veteran local bassist Larry Lange began expanding His Lonely Knights swamp-pop soul southward to San Antonio, he didn't just need a female foil for "Tu Prieto" and "Falta Tu Amor"; he needed a gutsy voice versed in blues and rock as well as one capable of duetting with Chicano soul legends such as the Royal Jesters' Dimas Garza.

Ramirez met the challenge with a homegirl's bravado, coming full circle from blues and rock to the music she was raised with. She and Garza created that duo magic that happens once in a great while, and she became his singing partner of choice. Garza's sudden death after a triumphant show in San Antonio last year stunned Ramirez.

"He was such an inspiration," laments Ramirez. "He had a childlike ex-citement about music and performing that was really brought home to me the night of our last show together at the Josephine Theatre in November. Dimas couldn't wait to go on, pacing back and forth, but of course he had to wait because he was one of the headliners. Dimas was still writing new songs, and I felt honored that he wanted to work with me in the future. I'm glad I was aware of the significance of working with him. Dimas had a big impact on me, and I'll never forget him."

The Krayolas

Tres Chicas

If Hector Saldana's sons, Jason and Nick, hadn't restored the Krayolas' 1980s vinyl singles ... no, if Michael and Ron Morales at Studio M hadn't been so impressed by the old songs that turned into Best Riffs Only ... no, if Augie Meyers hadn't approached them with "Little Fox" ...

No, really, if the band sometimes called the Tex-Mex Beatles for its 1960s quartet harmonies and San Antonio garage rock flair hadn't reunited, none of those things would have made a difference. And what are the odds that said reunion would deliver two critically adored CDs – 2008's La Conquistadora and Long Leaf Pine (No Smack Gum) earlier this year – hot South by Southwest showcases, airplay on Sirius Satellite Radio, and a feature on NPR's All Things Considered and convert Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt as fans? Pretty slim for guys in their 40s and 50s.

Never mind the hoary sentiment, though. Take "Corrido Twelve Heads in a Bag," a song from Long Leaf Pine, written by Saldana on Christmas Day after reading a newspaper story about a gruesome incident in Mexico and prompted by cinematic Dylan interpretation I'm Not There.

"The little boy was dressed down by the woman who told him to quit singing old songs and sing about his times," relates Saldana, senior staff entertainment writer and music columnist at the San Antonio Express-News. "In that instant, I paused the movie, grabbed my guitar, and wrote the song. When I finished it, I realized it was a corrido, even though it was in English and in four-four, so I wrote the waltz-time Spanish overture at the top."

Saldana, who, along with bandmate and brother David, was born in Houston, grew up in Corpus Christi, and moved to the Alamo City at the end of 1968, credits his home base for the band's good fortune.

"No place else fused the Chicano vibe, country music, and that New Orleans 1950s rock & roll quite like here. There's a lot of soul in San Antonio."

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Sarah Fox, Mary Welch, Joanna Ramirez, the Krayolas

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