Rancho Alegre Fights to Be the Cadillac of Conjunto Festivals
The music fest returns the native Texas genre Downtown where it once flourished
By César E. López Linares, Fri., May 3, 2019
When his mother fell ill and under professional care, a young Baldomero "Frank" Cuellar called her from a pay phone outside of Brackenridge Hospital to express his concern about missing the family's annual sojourn to see conjunto music legend Johnny Degollado. How could he get "The Montopolis Kid" to the medical facility, or even just somewhere near Downtown Austin, so his family could enjoy the music they'd all patronized in dance halls his entire life? Sunday, May 5, Cuellar's wish comes true.
When the 83-year-old accordion king takes the stage at Stubb's during day three of the all-free Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival, East Austin native Cuellar and his partner in the venture, Piper LeMoine, will have pulled off a third year in the Red River Cultural District. Traditionally, Degollado could be found at Fiesta Gardens on Cinco de Mayo weekend, topping his Austin Conjunto Festival. With the retirement of that event's leader, Gilbert Velasquez, one of conjunto's great ambassadors now returns to a cultural epicenter where the genre flourished midcentury last.
"It's not Cinco de Mayo without Johnny Degollado," states LeMoine. "We make sure to pay him respect and let him know we're all in this together – all expressing this culture together."
This year's headliner played Rancho Alegre in 2014, when they still celebrated at the Moose Lodge in February. This year, the fest's organizing duo relishes the opportunity to reinsert those same sounds into the heart of Austin's overall scene, where they believe it deserves an honored rung in the hierarchy. Commonly grouped as Tex-Mex, conjunto belongs to a series of American music genres born in Texas that includes Tejano and orquesta. The former took shape toward the end of the 19th century under the influence of traditional polka and accordion rhythms from European settlers and Mexican folk music.
Having staged their inaugural convergence in 2012, Cuellar and LeMoine landed at Stubb's in 2017 and remain passionate promoters of their Lone Star stake.
"The capacity of the Moose Lodge was 300 people, and we were growing," nods LeMoine.
They tried all of the places that normally serve a conjunto and Tejano audience – ballrooms and small bars – as well as bigger venues such as the Mexican American Cultural Center on Rainey Street, but all of them proved incompatible for genres that don't often make it onto commercial radio or television. The Rancho Alegre brain trust desired both more prestige and a more diverse audience, so they reached out to local Live Nation arm C3 Presents, promoters of ACL Fest and prime movers behind Stubb's.
"We really wanted a Cadillac kind of experience for these artists," says Cuellar. "We tell them, 'You guys are playing on the same stage where James Brown played, Metallica, any of these other groups,' and we're putting conjunto right next to them. We're really proud of that."
City of Festivals
Cuellar's career as a DJ for weddings and quinceañera parties ended after he suffered a series of strokes in 2011. During his recovery, he kept wondering how to fulfill a promise he'd made weeks before to Texan conjunto legend Rene Joslin. Wanting to return to Austin from Alice after a 14-year hiatus due to health issues, Joslin feared people wouldn't remember who he was.
Cuellar thought a festival might be a good solution.
Not exactly primed to the task, Cuellar nevertheless began making phone calls from his hospital bed. He sketched out a possible lineup and started inviting some bands he knew from around the Rio Grande Valley where he'd been touring with LeMoine, interviewing musicians for the pair's oral history and preservation project Rancho Alegre, which became a show on KOOP and ran 2014-2017. Landing the Moose Lodge without any funding, the two would-be festival organizers offered the bands a split of the door gains and promised to bring them back to play in Austin at the price they demanded if the festival grew.
"I don't think people realize Austin's the grand jewel," says Cuellar. "They want to play here because this is Willie's home. It's a big place for all these bands."
For the second festival in 2013, Rancho Alegre received funding from the Texas Folklife organization. A year later, they created a nonprofit and netted funds from the city of Austin. Finally, they could pay the bands and import conjunto musicians that otherwise wouldn't showcase at large Austin venues.
"We're a city of festivals, a music city, and conjunto needs to be right alongside every other genre," stresses LeMoine. "This needs to be equal to rock, equal to blues, equal to everything else, because this was born in Texas."
Johnny Degollado remembers when most clubs on Sixth Street hired conjunto bands. In the Fifties and Sixties, trad genres drew crowds to an urban center attracting Glenn Miller, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley.
"I played at La Bola de Oro, 609, La Placita on Sixth Street, the Three Aces," remembers the Austin-born genre giant. "They are all gone now, no more."
Degollado courted the old days when he debuted the Austin Conjunto Festival in 1990 at the Mexic-Arte Museum on Congress Avenue. Lakeside at Fiesta Gardens followed every year until 2018. Accepting Rancho Alegre's invitation meant acknowledging the biggest promoter of conjunto in Austin. That's a big responsibility for any entity, but he celebrates Cuellar and LeMoine's efforts to preserve that which he's dedicated his life to.
"We're friends even though [they're] doing the same thing I am doing," says Degollado. "We don't consider [that] competition. We consider it helping this stay alive, [helping] Conjunto music not to die."
Friday 3: The Barn (6218 Brodie)
7pm: Juaquin Chavez y los Conjunto Boys
8:40: Ruben de la Cruz y Su Conjunto
10:20: Ernesto Cadena y Conjunto Impulso
Saturday 4: The Barn
3:30pm: Los Nuevos Campeones de Ramiro González
5:10: Mark Weber y los Cuernos
7: Grupo Imagen
8:40: Los Texas Wranglers
10:20: Chano Cadena y Su Conjunto
Sunday 5: Stubb's (two stages)
2pm: Joe Zimmerle y Su Conjunto
3:10: Linda Escobar
3:30: Ramon Lucio y Conjunto Dominante
4:20: Bernardo y Sus Compadres
4:40: Mike G y los Reales
5:30: Johnny Degollado y Su Conjunto
5:50: Los Enmascarados
6:40: Pepe Maldonado y Su Conjunto
7:50: Gilberto Perez Jr. y Su Conjunto feat. Gilberto Perez Sr.
9: J.R. Gomez y Los Conjunto Bandits
Completely free and all-ages, the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival runs Friday 3 – Saturday 4 at the Barn on Brodie Lane, and Sunday 5 at Stubb’s. See more at www.ranchoalegreradio.org.