The Tex-Mex country band recalls its first go-around on a major label.
(Last year's set by The Mavericks at Jazz Fest was one of the festival's most joyous, so when the band returned to New Orleans last October to play Tipitina's, I took the opportunity to talk with founding member Robert Reynolds about the days before the band split up. Here's an encore presentation of that story since the band returns to Jazz Fest today, where it will play the Samsung Galaxy Stage at 3:40 p.m.)
"Raul feels we're at our apex," says The Mavericks' Robert Reynolds, reflecting singer Raul Malo's belief that the reunited country/Tex-Mex/swing/Latin band has never been better. Reynolds fondly remembers the band's early club dates in Miami when they played like a Latin-country Clash to 200 or so people, but he understands where Malo is coming from.
"When we played Jazz Fest this year, I got to see a convergence of X number of people that intent on seeing The Mavericks, some people who thought they might give it a try, and people who were led over by the music," Reynolds says. "I watched the crowd grow, which was really special. I got to see the evidence of the calling of the music."
When the reunited Mavericks played Jazz Fest this year, the Gentilly Stage became a joyous, exuberant dance party despite the acre of mud, and the band seemed to be having just as much fun. They've been Nashville darlings making hits, but they fell out of favor and fell apart. Now they're back together with an excellent album - In Time - and they're more appreciative of where they're at. They play Tipitina's tonight and Wednesday nights.
Listening to country music today, it's hard to imagine that there was ever a place for the band, but 1994's What a Cryin' Shame went platinum in the U.S. and double platinum in Canada. "There was a period when [label executives] were very eager to believe that there was a new music coming, a new outlaw period," Reynolds says, remembering a time when The Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam, BR-549 and The Kentucky Headhunters were all recording in Nashville. "They wanted to believe that there was a new day dawning, so for a moment it felt like Nashville really wanted to do this. It appealed to the hip sensibilities of most of the executives, producers and studio guys. They were more likely to spin Mavericks' music, Dwight Yoakam and Rodney Crowell's stuff on their drive home, maybe more so than some of the pop stuff at the time."
The honeymoon for the tradition-oriented country acts didn't last. "When you're the square peg and after trying and trying it's still not selling like a Reba record or hitting the charts like a George Strait record, at some point rather than admit defeat - and I don't just mean the band, I mean the people working these records - there's some distance has to come in," he says. "Blame has to go somewhere, and a band or artist will often be the fall guy. There's no doubt that there was a honeymoon, then there was reality."
By most measures, The Mavericks continued to be successful. 1995's Music for All Occasions went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Canada, and 1998's Trampoline and It's Now! It's Live! went gold in Canada. They had three singles break the Top 20 on the American country charts and six do the same on the Canadian charts, but big in Saskatoon doesn't cut it on Music Row. Major record labels are interested in major successes and at the time, gold wasn't good enough.
The experience was heartbreaking Reynolds says, and not only for the band. The Mavericks' champions at MCA Records also suffered the disappointment of watching a band they believed in falter commercially. Still, the took it hard. "When you feel the tide changing, blame casting goes on," he says. "With ruffled feathers comes tension, and sometimes tension brings misbehavior. We acted out and spoke our minds. We hadn't taken any media training, though the label likely wishes we had." Today, Reynolds talks about the experience with good humor, but at the time they felt pigeonholed and were suffering because radio wasn't interested in what they had to offer. When MCA didn't seem to be helping, they spoke out, making things worse.
"Speaking out means you aren't following the good ol' boy rules, and congeniality awards weren't being given. There was a moment when The Mavericks were mavericks again." In a genre that hasn't been fond of mavericks in years, that hurt them in Nashville and radio. Reynolds believes that some stations collectively blackballed the band.
The situation took its toll on the band, and in 2004 The Mavericks split up. "From the beginning, we always promised that if it didn't feel right, we'd walk away," Reynolds says. "We wouldn't sully the name by remaining past our prime. We began to truly doubt that we could take care of the music like we once did." Today, he's proud that they didn't hang around long enough to make music that stained the band's good name.
For years, Malo sounded like a Mavericks reunion was highly unlikely, but in 2011, it happened. "Honestly, it's just a number of things that gathered strength recently," Malo told St. Louis' Riverfront Times in 2011. "One thing led to another, and before you know it we were all roped in. I honestly never thought this would happen. I thought, if we come back I want it to be right, if we can play the shows we want and make a record with a label that will support us. And then all these things were a reality."
That label turned out to Big Machine, headed by Scott Borchetta. It's also the home of Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, and The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery, which makes it an unlikely home for a band that has historically fallen between genres' cracks. It seems even more improbable because Borchetta was The Mavericks' radio promotions guy when they started at MCA.
"We weren't turning in records that weren't easy to promote, and we were becoming difficult to promote because of behavioral things," Reynolds says. "But when he brought us to Big Machine, he said, 'I've got to have you as you once were. You've got to be The Mavericks I've always believed you could be and should be. He signed us on the condition that we'd be the band he struggled to promote years ago."
Borchetta launched the label with Swift, but he made it clear that he didn't expect The Mavericks to deliver Swiftian numbers. He agreed with the band that they needed the money to make their music sound the way it should, but he didn't plan to spend the money on videos that labels once would have spent, money that raises the bottom line for a project to break even. This compromise didn't bother a band that never loved making videos and had less interest in them with each passing year. "Trying to look pretty for a video used to seem fun, but by video 24, the last thing you want to think about is looking at the edit and see whatever weight gain is going on, the lines around your eyes, and the hair that used to be on your head is on your back," Reynolds says. "They don't make lenses that make us pretty."
The Big Machine time hasn't been an unblemished success. They spent money the way they used to on radio promotion, and realized with Borchetta that it didn't work the way it used to. "That was fine by us because the old way of doing things didn't work for us anyway," Reynolds says. "We felt like some of the expectations were whittled down to something we could satisfy."
This time around, Reynolds appreciates the band differently. The twentysomething's hunt for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is tempered, and new concerns have entered the picture. He doesn't deny the good times that accompanied The Mavericks' signing and early years - "they were fun" - but "the brand began to mean something more," he says. "Now you can talk about legacy. There's no way to talk about that after album three, year two. There is no legacy yet. There's nothing to base a history on. But when you reunite and you've got your eighth album, and you've seen four or five different repackagings of your greatest hits and you realize your 25th year is about to come up, you can actually speak of what will be the legacy of the group. And why tarnish that now?"
When pressed, Reynolds says The Mavericks are a better band than they used to be. "With time comes some wisdom," he says. "You should be able to play better. Years should give you that until arthritis sets in. The show you at Jazz Fest was not a fluke show. That's our new standard. We try to do Jazz Fest-type shows every night. The show needs to be kind of epic, and I think we're delivering that."