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Tapping into tradition isn't exactly a shortcut to notoriety. But when the Mavericks set out to carve their niche in country music in the late 1980s, they were arguably the most unlikely outfit ever to emerge from South Florida's music scene. They eschewed the dance designs that had propelled the so-called Miami sound to international renown, sidestepped the Latin rhythms indigenous to the area, and spurned the ghoulish gimmickry that made Marilyn Manson a shock sensation. Instead, these four homeboys plied an unassuming, down-home sound into worldwide acclaim.
Had this been Texas or Tennessee or, heck, practically anywhere north of Lake Worth, the Mavericks' country croon might not have seemed so out of sync. But considering their leader, Raul Malo, was a kid of Cuban-American descent fixated on Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline, country credibility wasn't necessarily a given.
Nevertheless, the band became a sensation. It debuted with an eponymous, independently produced album on local label Y&T Records. The quartet — Malo, drummer Paul Deakin, bassist Robert Reynolds, and original guitarist Ben Peeler — quickly accumulated a rabid local following and eventually set its sights on Nashville. There a bidding war sprouted among several record labels, and the Mavericks eventually signed with MCA.
Their ability to mesh a traditional template with a fresh, contemporary approach led to a string of chart-topping hits and critically acclaimed best-selling albums, gaining them an international fan base. They continued to harvest hits throughout most of the 1990s, integrating a revolving cast of guitarists, a purer pop approach, and Malo's Hispanic heritage into their ever-expanding repertoire.
Ultimately, troubles with MCA forced the band to go on hiatus at the beginning of the millennium. So Malo embarked on a successful solo career that has found him mainly mining standards and taking an occasional side sojourn with the Latin supergroup Los Super Seven and other one-off collaborations.
And his creative output has surged with a new album, the slyly titled Lucky One. After a series of albums that found him retracing standards from the great American songbook, it marks his return to writing original material, which echoes the sound and style of the classic composers represented on earlier Mavericks albums. Malo's singing style is as riveting as Orbison's and as seductive as Sinatra's, and the new album tows a line between re-establishing his own credence as a songwriter and reflecting his reverence for his heroes.
Malo is quick to point out this is his work, not a Mavericks rehash (after a short-lived reunion in 2003, the group disbanded). In fact, mention of the Mavs prompts him to express his intent to put the relationship with them firmly behind him.
"Honestly, I don't miss the Mavericks," he says. "The Mavericks are a bittersweet memory for me. There are a lot of great memories, and there are also a lot of shit memories. And things didn't end so happily. It's not like we're all great friends. It ended up in ugly lawsuits that cost me a lot of money and caused a lot of pain and suffering for my family and my kids."
He also insists it was a fairly smooth transition from his role in the band to his status as a solo performer. "At the end of the day, I can entertain a crowd with just me and my acoustic, and once you do that, you don't really need anybody else. Even in the Mavericks, I was still the singer, the only singer, so all eyes were on me anyway," he says. "So not much has changed, except now the name on the marquee isn't the Mavericks, it's Raul Malo. Anybody can spin it anyway they want it, but I was there, and I know what went on, and I know what was contributed and what was not contributed."
Still, there are those who would prefer that Malo, as he goes forward, take the Mavericks in tow. He says he understands those sentiments, but he's not willing to accommodate their wishes.
"People latch on to it because the Mavericks were a successful band, but it has nothing to do about keeping the band together. It has more to do about keeping their fantasy world together," he says. "It's like the Mavericks were part of a soundtrack of their lives, and I understand it. I do. I can imagine what Paul McCartney still hears, you know?"
Animosity aside, Malo says the title of the new album is an accurate reflection of his current state of mind. "I truly feel fortunate to be in this position. I've worked hard to get here and suffered a lot and given up a lot," he says. "I could have kept the Mavericks going. We could have done the same record over and over, but I didn't want to do that. Even early on, when I didn't know exactly what I was doing, I knew I didn't want to do that. There's a price to pay for that, but that's okay, because I'm perfectly okay with where I'm at."