I wasn't sure what to expect when I first heard of Sammy Arriaga, the Miami-born Cuban country singer — mainly because I don't know a whole lot of Cuban country singers, or Miami country singers. The version I imagined of Arriaga was some type of classic South Florida bro in a ten-gallon hat. But the 23-year-old who has already performed next to acts like Love and Theft, The Voice champ Cassadee Pope, Chase Rice, Trace Adkins, and Corey Smith doesn't fit neatly into any one box.
As soon as we began to talk Arriaga, who just released his first single “Cold in Miami," he distanced himself from both country and Latin stereotypes. “I don’t necessarily need to sing about anything that has to do with Spanish stuff, like Mexico, or the islands, or 'Margarita Señorita.' The fact that I’m Hispanic should be enough for me to represent my culture," he says. "I just want to make music that any person can like.”
Through our conversation Arriaga was affable and talkative, a surprisingly down to earth Miami kid who hasn’t seemed to realize yet how bright his future is looking. His reasons for being a musician are simple. “I want to make people happy," he says this with a chuckle. I'm ready to ask him some question about human pain and how country music is almost always about heartbreak ("Cold in Miami" is about a lost love), but he interrupts me and keeps going. “It’s almost like I’m a doctor. My job is to make you feel good if you went through a break-up or just had a long day at work.”
But how does a Miami-born Cuban end up playing country music in Nashville, Tennessee? Arriaga's story is surprisingly logical but also as far-fetched as you’d imagine. His journey started in 2011, Arriaga explains, “I did American Idol on Season 10. I made it to Hollywood, and my dad suggested that I do country, since it’s the genre that has done the best on those live shows. So, I started learning how to play the guitar, write my own lyrics, and studied country music.”
It was a calculated business decision that led him to the genre, and he’s continued ever since. He fell in love with country, he says more than once in our interview, explaining, “I feel like anybody who works a day job, or has a family, or loves somebody, or has broken up can relate to country music. I love how relatable it is.”
But, what’s most interesting is how relatable Arriaga is himself. He dropped out of Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, to move to Nashville. “The most famous bar in Nashville is called Tootsies, almost just like the one in Miami, and that’s what I put in my GPS. I went straight to Tootsies.”
He laughs as he tells his stories and never takes himself too seriously. He jumbles his words and makes jokes, but without any self-aggrandizing. “Growing up I always wanted to go work on something," he says. "When I was younger it was soccer, and then I discovered music, and I became the nerdy guy with the guitar in the hallway.” Asked if he at least took some time to party during his time in Miami, he says, “I would rather accomplish something and then party to celebrate. In fact, I’m pretty glad I didn’t fall into the Miami warp-hole of partying.”
Arriaga thinks part of what’s made him so successful is how approachable and personable he is, and he thanks his parents in large part for it. He’s the son of two native Cubans who left the island to come to Miami. He can't say enough good things about his father. “My dad’s my best friend," he says. “He came from Cuba, started working two jobs as a factory worker and cable guy, and finally was able to get a degree in Radiology and now has his own business. He pushed me to come to Nashville. I think of what he had to overcome every day I’m here.”
Mainstream country, like pop music, tries to appeal to everyone. The recipe of a good country song includes lyrics that skew broad, which is why heartbreak is often its subject matter. For Arriaga it’s a bit different. “I’ve got to admit, a lot of my songs come from thinking about women that I wish I knew.” And though he may have stumbled into the genre for the wrong reasons, in many ways, Arriaga is perfect for country music. He's a genuine guy and I can tell his music is a priority to him, and that he feels strongly about spreading positivity through his work.
“How does one know that you can wake up one morning, pick up a guitar, hit a couple chords, write some lines that you’d never think anyone would ever give a crap about. But, one night you’ve got a show and next thing you know people are singing along. It’s a magical thing that a human being can connect with another person they’ve never met before. That’s priceless.
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"Music is kind of our go-to to exert our negative energies...It’s the universal remedy that you can’t find at CVS.”
Any last words you’d like to tell the readers of this interview, I ask. "Anything?" He retorts. Yes, Sammy anything.
“It’s really exciting that my hometown is finally going to get to know who I am and my music. I love Miami. I love my Hispanics, Americans, I love everybody in the world!”