George Strait Is Pushing Boundaries and Opening Doors with “El Rey”
Taking chances is a rare thing in mainstream country these days. Taking chances that are culturally significant is even rarer. Leave it to veteran George Strait to be the diamond in the rough.
On his new album, Twang, Strait covers “El Rey” a traditional Mexican folk song delivered entirely in Spanish. The move has the country music world buzzing.
About the Song:
“El Rey” (which means “The King”) was written over 50 years ago by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, who is one of Mexico’s most esteemed songwriters. Jimenez is sometimes referred to as the Mexican Woody Guthrie, and has been described as “Mexico’s Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams all rolled into one.”
William Gradante in The Latin American Music Review had this to say about Jimenez:
“Inspiration and intensity, simplicity and sincerity, were probably Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s greatest attributes. Even casual listeners are impressed by these qualities in his singing style, particularly when compared with other singers of the day[…]Jimenez’s purpose was not to sing about himself as much as to evoke in his listeners memories of similar sentiments and experiences in their own lives.”
According to the blog Songlations, “El Rey” is a tribute to Mexican macho-ism and masculinity; the protagonist goes around saying that he is king and that everyone will cry when he dies. He’s not married and has no strings attached—he basically just does what he wants. The sentiment is a celebration of the freedom to roam and explore.
Strait is only one in a club of hundreds who have released recorded versions of Jimenez’s classic.
Cross Cultural Appeal:
While many people may be shocked at Strait’s decision to record the song, a closer look at Mexican influences in Strait’s music—and country music in general—shows that it should come as no surprise.
Country music historian Don Cusic hasn’t heard Strait’s version of the song yet, but acknowledges the prevalence of Mexican culture in country music.
“The Mexican influence on country music extends from the clothing (colorful) to the music, via Texas,” said Cusic. “The image of the cowboy is strong in both–and George Strait is certainly part of that culture. The cattle culture, horses, saddles, lariats and all that is heavily influenced by Mexico.”
Mexican-American artists like Freddy Fender and Rick Trevino have played up that country music connection in the past by releasing bilingual albums and songs. But currently, the Hispanic demographic of country fans has gone largely ignored.
No one knows this better than Gabe Garcia, a Hispanic artist who was runner-up on NBC’s Nashville Star last year.
“It’s a huge market to tap in to right now because there’s so many Hispanic people that love country. I think it needs to be done,” said Garcia. “We really need to get somebody out there just to have another influence.”
Garcia is a huge Strait fan, and covered several of Strait’s songs on the show. After hearing “El Rey,” Garcia was pleased, but not surprised.
“I think he did a pretty good job on it. It’s pretty cool,” said Garcia. “I don’t think it’s a shocker that he’s done something like that. He’s always loved Spanish culture and music.”
Garcia grew up 15 minutes from Strait’s hometown, in Pearsall, Texas, and knows the Hispanic influence is strong around those parts.
“He grew up around a lot of Spanish speaking people and a lot of Spanish bands,” said Garcia. “That’s part of being from South Texas. That’s the culture down there.”
While Strait clearly respects Tejano and Hispanic music, the feeling is mutual. Garcia has toured with several Tejano bands and has even covered a few Strait songs with them—in particular, an accordion-laced version of “Amarillo By Morning.”
“When I go around with those guys, I sing all country stuff and man, they love it,” said Garcia. “I always sing a George Strait song and they pack the floor.”
A Shot at Radio:
Lou Ramirez, the afternoon DJ for country radio station KJ97 in San Antonio, has already been spinning the song and getting responses. He played “El Rey” for the first time earlier in the week.
“A lot of people called in. I’ve gotten lots emails, lots of people hitting me up on Twitter about it, and tons of follow-up phone calls about it.”
He said the response has been overall very positive.
“Overwhelmingly, people knew it was special and different, but there were a number of people who said it doesn’t belong on country radio. And then there was a small percentage that said ‘I don’t like that kind of music, don’t ever play it again,” said Ramirez.
Ramirez was hesitant to speak about how he thought the song would do on a national level, but for South Texas he knew it would go over well. He found out about the song’s availability after hearing the local Tejano station playing it first.
“When George comes out with a record, people want to hear it so we immediately jump on it,” said Ramirez. “So you mix in the fact that people in this area are very aware of that song. It’s played in mariachis, at quinceaneras. It’s played all across South Texas. So the same reasons a Tejano station would play it are the same reasons that I’d play it.”
To give a better example of the cross-culture Tejano-country appeal in Texas, Ramirez pointed to Tuesday night’s Dallas Cowboys kick-off party at the Alamodome.
“Randy Rogers Band played, which is a Texas music band and they were followed up by Intocable, which is a straight-up Tejano music band,” said Ramirez. “That is a perfect dichotomy of what’s going on. Hispanics love country music and they love Tejano music. And it’s OK, you can like both.”
As far as Ramirez knows, stations in Corpus Christi and Austin are spinning the track as well. That number will probably go up today, as the track became available on various digital distribution services, which means radio stations across the country will have the opportunity to play it.
Strait Opening Doors
While Ramirez likes the new Strait track, he believes that other artists are capable of producing Hispanic-friendly music, as well. He recalled that Lee Ann Womack planned on singing in Spanish for her latest album.
“If you have a passion for something, I think you can pull it off,” said Ramirez.
Garcia agreed. His good friend Rhett Akins has recently taken a liking to Tejano music and culture.
“He loves Spanish,” said Garcia. “He’s got that Rosetta Stone program. He’s really excited about learning Spanish so eventually he might try to do something like that.”
Garcia also hopes to carry the torch that artists like Fender and Trevino passed on—and he doesn’t mind Strait helping to get the style on the map.
“With George doing this, it might open a few doors for some other artists to maybe leap into something like that,” said Garcia.
Overall though, both Garcia and Ramirez are just happy to see an artist they love making the kind of music he wants to make.
“It’s an event record, it gets people talking,” said Ramirez. “Right now, George is doing records that he wants to do and to me, that’s really exciting to see him as an artist pushing what he can do.”
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