Save the Date: Tish Hinojosa will join us the Nasher Museum of Art on November 1st to launch the Music & Protest Issue. More details below.
San Antonio native Tish Hinojosa recently spoke with Brendan Greaves, guest editor of the Music & Protest Issue, about her long career as a writer and performer blending border, Tejano, country, and folk music. As she did twenty-five years ago on her first album Homeland, Hinojosa’s newest work West highlights the enduring place of border stories in our culture today. In this conversation, Hinojosa reflects on her past and present lives as a musician and activist at a moment when musics of protest have taken on renewed importance.
Brendan Greaves: I thought it might be nice to start with your new album West, which you released this summer. I understand it’s your first since 2013, and your first since returning to Texas after several years living abroad. How did the album come to be and what was involved in its genesis?
Tish Hinojosa: Well, my focus from 2016 into 2017 was re-releasing my first record Homeland. I mean, I call it my first—it’s technically the first major label record, and it had been out of print for like fifteen years, since the early 2000s. The core of a lot of my music still stems from that record, and I still play a lot of it live. So, my idea was: the record label owns that record, but as an artist, I had my own re-record rights, so I thought I [would] re-record this record [for] its twenty-fifth anniversary and make a splash about that. I re-recorded it and we were in the process of mastering it and getting it ready and then, last year, I just got this wild idea. I decided to pull my old broken guitar out of my closet and ended up writing a whole bunch of stuff. I fixed it myself, which was quite a feat because I’m not quite a woodworker, but I managed to do it and wrote a bunch of songs. I wrote the song “My Good Guitar,” and from there came the song “West,” and then a slew of other songs that seemed to fall into the place of this kind of western themed record. So, that’s kind of the genesis of how West came about, which was totally unexpected and wasn’t the direction I was planning on going yet.
There’s a really interesting, I think, maturity in how these songs have transformed since [Homeland] came out in ’89. I think there’s more maturity in the playing of it, in the presenting and performing of the songs, and that comes out in the re-record without straying too far from the original arrangements of the songs. It just sounds better and it was so much fun to correct a few things that I hadn’t liked about what the first production was like.
And also, thematically, the strongest part is the “Border Trilogy,” which was on that record. The “Border Trilogy” was kind of the core of [Homeland]—many of my family stories, you know: “West Side of Town,” about San Antonio; “Donde Voy,” about crossing the border; and then the song “Joaquin,” which is about a boy I met in Mexico who told me his dream was to come to the United States to work so that he could be successful. It’s kind of sad—I mean, I wrote . . . those songs [in] ’88, ’89. But they still ring really true today. If anything, they ring a little more true considering the border issues that we’re having. I’m looking forward to being reintroduced to a newer and younger audience that was too young to know when Homeland came out in 1989.
BG: On the subject of your earlier work, I would like to go back in time and talk a bit about your experience growing up in San Antonio and your family and the music you were surrounded with at the time. You grew up in a large family?
TH: Oh, yes. And we’re largely female. There were eleven girls and two boys, so I had many women role models in my life. I think I was quite influenced by the strength of my mother and my sisters. And my father was just a wonderful, soft-spoken man and he tried to stay out of the way of all the girls. He’d work out in his little shop in the backyard and he’d make things for mom in the kitchen. He died when I was sixteen, but I first started playing guitar when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I would be practicing on the front porch and he would just quietly come and say, “I don’t want to bother you. I’m just going to come out here and smoke my cigarette, drink my beer, and listen.” He wouldn’t pat me on the back and say, “Oh, you’re wonderful,” but he wouldn’t leave, so apparently he liked what he was hearing.
There was so much going on in my house all the time. I was paid attention to but I was also fairly ignored. A lot of the time I was quiet and curious and I’d go out in the backyard and I’d be singing songs from the radio all by myself and no one was paying attention to that. [laughs] It wasn’t like a light bulb went off in my head at that time saying, “Oh, I’m a singer,” but it was a thing that came easy to me that I loved to do. The luckiest part of being in that position was my parents always had the kitchen radio tuned to the Mexican station.
I loved the pop music of the ’60s. That, to me, was the foundation of realizing that I was really attracted to music. And my mother, who wanted to be a singer in her youth, wasn’t able to live that dream because she was poor and she needed work and she had a two-year-old when she came to San Antonio looking for work. But she always made sure that we had music in the house.
BG: Did both your parents immigrate from Mexico?
TH: Yes. Dad was born in Tamaulipas and my mother was born in Coahuila and they met in San Antonio, somewhere around the mid-1940s. My dad had been in the States quite a while. He had already raised a family. He had seven kids with his first wife and then she died suddenly from a surgery mistake. They claimed it was anesthesia, but we’ll never know. So it was a sudden death and quite shocking, quite devastating to him, suddenly finding himself being a widower with seven kids from sixteen down to three years old.
When people realized that my mother was new in town and she was looking for work and stuff, they somehow managed to introduce them to each other, and it just kind of worked out for both of them. She was looking for work and he was looking for a wife, or a partner. He needed help; that’s for sure. So, that’s how our family started. They had her two-year-old and he had his two- to three-year-old, and then all his other kids. Then they had five more daughters, and I’m the youngest of those.
BG: One thing that strikes me, thinking about San Antonio in the ’50s and ’60s, is that there were all these people playing music or coming into their own as musicians. How aware of that scene were you as a young woman in San Antonio? Did you get out and see a lot of live music, interact with other musicians, or were you mostly a musician at home at that time?
TH: My brother, who’s thirteen years older than me, graduated from high school in ’61 or something like that. He was very into the social scene. They had social clubs, which was because San Antonio is pretty segregated and the African Americans and the Mexicans had social clubs at which they’d rent a venue and have a semi-formal public party. Everybody would dress up and they’d have a band. They call it the San Antonio soul scene or . . . the Tejano and soul movement, which was people like Steve Jordan, the amazing accordionist—the Mick Jagger of Tejano. They’d kind of mix Tejano with R&B. I have so many memories of my older sisters and my brother dressing up and going to these social club dances that they would organize. That, to me, was very particular to San Antonio and the Southwest.
BG: I’m curious about your transition from San Antonio to Austin, and the time in between, which was in northern New Mexico. And were you also in Nashville for a bit?
TH: Yeah. The time I was in Taos was super interesting because that’s when I really became more aware of country music. The odd thing was it took leaving Texas to really get into Texas music. I have to say, when I was growing up I didn’t think very much of country music. I thought about people drinking beers and smoking cigarettes in these kind of divey loungers and that just didn’t seem attractive. But then once I got to New Mexico, people would come out dancing and they’d want to hear the Jerry Jeff [Walker] stuff, and Rodney Crowell, and Guy Clark. I was learning about all this, you know, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and all this really cool country music. And then that kind of changed everything for me. About that time was when Michael Murphey and I became friends and he started taking me on the road with him as his backup singer, so I got to go to Nashville for the first time back in those early ’80s. He introduced me to people at publishing companies because I was just starting to write, and so most of my early stuff is country stuff. And that’s how I kind of got my Nashville connection and his publishing company hired me as an in-house demo singer, so I got to sing these great old country songs and then realized the beauty and how cool old country stuff was. Even though I had already won the New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival for my songwriting, if someone would have given me a record deal just like, “Hey, we want you to be a country singer?” I would have said, “I’ll take it.”
BG: When you think about the history and legacy of music in Austin, the big marquee names—at least in the popular imagination—are a lot of white males. Townes [Van Zandt], Guy [Clark], Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson], Jerry Jeff [Walker], Michael Martin Murphey. I wonder if you ever felt like an outsider as a Latina, as a female in this music world whose quote-unquote heroes are often white guys?
TH: It’s kind of a boys club. I can name the famous girls on one hand. There’s Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Marcia Ball, Rosie [Flores], myself. I’m not sure if that’s changing or if it could change. I mean, during the time when we were in Nashville working together, Rosie was in town as well for the Americana music week. So Rosie came and sat in with us. And I was thinking, “Man, we could be like the Texas Tornadoes,” Rosie and me and Stephanie and Patricia. [We] would be like the Super Latinas or something like that. It would be fun to make a record and to do a tour.
BG: During the time when you were playing live, were you playing some of your own compositions or would you play country material, folk material, Tejano material, or a mix of everything?
TH: I kind of walked the route of Linda Ronstadt. She didn’t write her stuff but she picked really good songs by really good writers, and I always felt it was important to choose good songs to sing if they weren’t songs that I wrote. And, yes, I was writing more and I was sneaking my songs in throughout the set little by little and they weren’t all country stuff. Some of them were my early Spanish songs like “Amanecer” or “Who Showed You the Way to My Heart.” Eventually, the table started turning and the songwriter in me started coming up more and I was getting more prolific. By ’88, it just felt like the right time to make the move to Austin, which is a writers’ town. By then I was married. My kids were toddlers, and I was really looking forward to more family support, so that instigated the move to Austin. And then, by the next year, I got signed to A&M Records, and that’s when Homeland came out and then everything got kicked into a higher gear: touring all over the country and then touring internationally and all that kind of stuff. When it rains, it pours. It was like everything happened at once.
Those were the truly busiest years. And that’s about the time that I would be asked to get involved in campaigning for Ann Richards for governor [of Texas] or Bill Clinton for president and Al Gore and our Democratic beliefs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, those were the super interesting and fun years. Getting to go sing at the White House and doing campaign stops with Al Gore was kind of magical.
BG: I’m curious to hear the kind of progression of the relationship of your music and your politics over the years. We’re obviously in a very different place now in this country than we were when you were first addressing these issues and involved in activism and campaigning in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. Where do you position yourself now? Are you actively involved in those political worlds? Have you given up hope?
TH: I’m angry, of course. I’m angry and all but also hopeful because I think, out of these bad things that are going on, there’s been a lot of momentum in women’s movements and [with] Democratic issues. And I did go do some campaigning with [Beto O’Rourke, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Texas] down around the border.
BG: Are you actively writing songs these days that you think are engaged politically, or addressing some of these issues that are important to you?
TH: For me, my “Border Trilogy” kind of says the story. The immigration story is—I mean, I’d say 98 percent of immigrants are really good, hardworking people that want to be Americans. I saw this first-hand with my parents and with their friends, who would come stay in our house, who were coming over illegally. They’d come and find work, and everybody would eventually become citizens.
BG: This is a big question but do you feel that music is inherently political or apolitical? Do you think that musicians have political responsibilities? Or not? And should those responsibilities by addressed through their music, or outside their music?
TH: Protest songs were what fired me up to love music. You know, when Crosby, Stills, & Nash did the song about the Ohio shooting, I was really aware of the power of music. Pictures and recordings of Joan Baez at the Martin Luther King rallies. Arlo Guthrie or Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie—those were the songs that I became aware of early on in my early teens. It changed me. It made me not be complacent. I was fired up and wanted to get involved and go out and protest and not eat grapes for the farm workers [a reference to the United Farm Workers’ grape strike, which lasted from 1965–1970]. So, I probably wouldn’t have become the songwriter I became if I didn’t have those memories ingrained in my head about how strong the power of music was or, you know, Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” These were very moving songs. I think we’re moving away from that a lot because I know I always get criticized for being too political. You know, it’s always, “Hey, get back to the music! Get off your soapbox!”
BG: The criticism that musicians shouldn’t be political, to me, is a bit absurd, because life is political and art mirrors life, and if you pretend your music isn’t political, that’s in itself a political act as far as I’m concerned. There’s different ways to balance that, of course, and ways to do it more artfully or less artfully, but that’s a different question.
TH: Well, you know what I think? Putting a face on a story—like John Prine singing “There’s a Hole in Daddy’s Arm Where All the Money Goes”—I think that hits stronger than actually saying, “Just say no! Drugs are bad!” If I am to be inspired, I would just like to make it thoughtful.
My mother passed away in ’85, and that’s when [I did] a lot more of the social-themed stuff. I mean, I’d already done the “Border Trilogy” on Homeland, but [that’s] when Culture Swing came out, “Bandera de Sol” and “Something in the Rain,” about the farmworkers, and “Las Marias”—the songs that I recorded on Frontejas, the Spanish record. And then I put out a bilingual children’s record around then too, mid-’90s. There are no social issues on that one, but the whole record is about bringing kids together on the beauty of being bilingual and appreciation of the culture.
When my mother was alive, we would talk on the phone a few times a week. Speaking Spanish was still very important because she didn’t speak English. Once she passed away, I had lost my strong Mexican connection. And especially because my babies were small and I wanted to make sure that they understood what our culture was about, writing in Spanish and writing songs about issues that meant a lot to me—about the border, and about Mexican-Americanism—became more important. I felt like I really wanted to grasp onto my culture stronger because I was afraid of losing it.
Presented with the Charleston Lecture in Southern Affairs at the Center for the Study of the American South, UNC-Chapel Hill, and People Get Ready at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University