The Austin Chronicle

Austin’s Accordion Godfather Camilo Cantu Never Recorded, So Johnny Degollado Made an Album in Tribute

The Montopolis Kid records an homage to a conjunto force of nature

By Gary Lindsey, April 15, 2022, Music

At 86 years old, Johnny Degollado's still "The Montopolis Kid" and has the address to prove it. The historically Mexican thoroughfare is changing rapidly – culturally and demographically – but some things stay the same. On the street's east end, there's a little gray house where he's lived since the 1950s. A shedlike studio in the backyard serves as an unofficial museum for the accordionist, whose music's been a steady local rhythm for 70 years.

Like the property itself, Degollado stands as a cultural anchor in Austin.

While he's spent a lifetime fine-tuning his own style of conjunto, Degollado's latest album draws back to where it all began. Musica Al Estilo de Camilo pays homage to his mentor, Camilo Cantu, a conjunto force of nature in his own time who was widely known, but never recorded.

The 10-track collection, in which Degollado's accordion resounds over the pulse of J.J. Barrera's bajo sexto, time-warps to an era when the American pop charts were dominated by big band music, such as Glenn Miller's 50-piece orchestra. A band that size was a luxury Cantu wouldn't have had the resources to pursue. Fortunately, he didn't need it. With only accordion and bajo accompaniment, the man known as "El Azote de Austin" would keep hundreds entertained for hours on end at an open-air venue called La Polkita.

This was where Degollado first saw Cantu play in 1942 at the age of 7 and knew, instantly, that he had to learn how to play that music.

"Camilo Cantu would draw big crowds in La Polkita of Del Valle during the golden years," Degollado states in the album's heartfelt introduction, adding, "I learned to play music from him ... he taught me polkas of the old times."

Since Cantu – who died at age 90 in 1998 – never graced a studio, a mythical question mark has always surrounded his name: What did he sound like?

This album answers that question.

"We did our best to do the music he never recorded," Degollado further testifies. "I'm the only one who knew all his polkas. I'm fortunate enough to do this CD as close as I could to his style."

Don't let words like "conjunto" or "polka" scare you; Musica Al Estilo de Camilo is an energetic collection that can be enjoyed just as easily today on a Rainey Street patio as it could at any cantina or rodeo. Every song is bright, lively, and relatable enough to create a fun, festive environment. It's a wonderful representation of our fading history, with an energy that will never fade.

Perfectly mixed to feel as though the songs are being played live, you can imagine melodies on Musica Al Estilo de Camilo sustaining eternally in tin signs hanging on barroom walls while harmonizing with the steady buzz of the neon. Children have learned to dance to these compositions, teenagers have fallen in love to them, and, when they were played, parents could find temporary relief from the drudgery of long work weeks with little pay.

All of this comfort, provided simply by two instrumentalists. It's yet another testament to the transformative power of music.

The other protagonist in this story of rhythm, respect, and honor is Rancho Alegre Records. The Austin-based nonprofit run by Frank Cueller and Piper Lemoine is far more than just a label – more like a virtual culture center. Think Folkways for conjunto.

Besides encouraging, recording, and releasing new artists, other projects include digitizing old analog recordings for artists, building an accessible archive of oral histories from important Tejano and conjunto figures, and connecting artists with professional services and resources.

For the non-conjunto listener, I doubt you'll find yourself playing this entire album on repeat like I did, or adding it to your top five list of the year next to Drake, Bad Bunny, or BTS, but no matter your musical preference, I strongly recommend throwing a few of these tracks onto your summer playlist for backyard barbecues, river floats, or afternoons on Lake Travis. It doesn't matter whether you are a lifelong Austinite, a recent transplant, or a UT student passing through on your journey to adulthood, this music's history and energy permeates throughout every section of the city, and your time spent here should not be without at least a hint of it in your life.

Degollado and Barrera perform at Stubb’s on May 1 as a part of the three-day Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival. Musica Al Estilo de Camilo is out now.

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