Bassist Bobby Reynolds likens the phenomenon to "a skin graft that didn't take."
Since taking the MCA plunge, Reynolds's band, the Mavericks, has been on a wild ride. From Hell to Paradise, their major-label debut, corralled a herd of glowing reviews from the likes of USA Today and Billboard. Yet popular success, as measured by album sales and radio airplay, eludes them.
"It's similar to what happened to Nuclear Valdez," Reynolds says. "For a while it looked like it was going to happen to Saigon Kick, too. Thank goodness it didn't. You can have all these great critical reviews, but if you don't get played, the album won't sell. And Nashville, or country radio, is still very old-fashioned, very by-the-book. So it's like, 'What happened to the Mavericks?' 'Oh, we're sorry, they didn't take.' Radio's a frickin' cancer, man!"
Radio acceptance was a big concern early on. While a song like "This Broken Heart" could have wrung tears from Hank Sr.'s eyes, the Mavericks' brand is a tad more adventurous than mainstream country radio thinks its listeners want to hear. Anticipating a somewhat less-than-warm country-radio reception, management loosed the four horsemen on the novel (by pop-music touring standards) Lounge 'N Around Tour. The idea was to spend four or five days in each town on the itinerary, playing several gigs outside of the normal country-music venues and building word-of-mouth in an attempt to stimulate some of the same kind of grassroots popularity the Mavs enjoyed here in Miami before MCA whisked them off to Nashville. While the strategy's effectiveness (or lack thereof) will not be borne out until the next album is released, early indications are that the groundwork has been laid.
They've come a long way from that first live gig at Churchill's Hideaway, when Froilan Sosa and Robert Slade LeMont from the Nukes joined Raul Malo and guitarist Ben Peeler, who has since left the Mavericks. Nothing about the band's making it has been predictable (except the fact that they would make it). It seems only fitting, then, that the locale where the band was most enthusiastically received would be neither their new home base, Nashville, nor their old stomping ground, Miami. It was the Cayman Islands.
"It was the last stop on our tour," explains drummer Paul Deakin. "We'd been on the road for seven months, and we were all like, 'Why in the hell are we playing in the Cayman Islands?' It was coming up on the holidays and we wanted to be with our families. We thought it would be a disaster. I mean, when you think of the Caribbean, you don't normally associate it with country music. But we didn't know that 'This Broken Heart' had gone to number two there, or that all three of the singles [the other two being 'Hey Good Lookin' ' and 'I Got You'] made it into their Top 40.
"We'd been playing all these concerts and clubs around the U.S., and people would come up to us after the shows and tell us how much they liked us and everything, but it wasn't like people recognized us on the street. But in the Cayman Islands, everybody knew us. Raul [Malo, the singer-songwriter with the golden pipes] was buying cigars in this liquor store and four out of five people who walked into the store came up to him and said, 'Ooo, the Mavericks! We lovin' your music,' or 'We're going to your show.' It was incredible."
"Even the customs agents recognized us," adds Reynolds.
"We sold out the show down there," Deakin says. "The radio station even had this promotion where people could go out on a Hobie Cat to a place called Stingray City, where you could feed the stingrays by hand A "
"A And the stingrays went, 'It's the Mavericks!'" interjects the bassist.
Friendly radio, fan recognition, a hit single, hip stingrays A it's a wonder the once-reticent band ever left.
Reynolds uses the Cayman success, which he directly attributes to the Islands' tradition of wide-open, no-format radio, to point out a serious deficiency here at home. "The same station that plays Poison might play Vince Gill right afterwards, and then Nat 'King' Cole," he says. "It's like in Europe, where there's not such a direct connection between the music that gets played and the commercials that go on around it. The artists that you play don't have to represent a certain demographic that will then go out and buy A I don't know, tampons. If you only measured success by radio, then we haven't been successful."
But neither member of the thoroughbred rhythm section is willing to abide by that measurement. And that goes a long way toward explaining why the local heroes are looking forward to their first tour of Europe, which begins in May. They'll be touching down in London at the same time their first single is released there, so the potential for overseas commercial viability is still within their reach, especially given country music's soaring popularity across the pond.
"It's been a great year," Deakin says. "Bob and I have always been very levelheaded, very realistic about it. We've been very lucky so far. I'm just enjoying it, taking it as it comes. One thing we always wanted to do was go to Europe, and now we're doing it. In '92 we toured in a van and in '93 we got a bus. I vowed never to become that cliche of the bitter musician that goes, 'Business sucks!'
"One of the only things that's hard for me to accept is that after three singles maybe didn't get the kind of radio airplay that [MCA] wanted them to, then it's on to the next record. Well, I love this record. I'm proud of this record, and I don't want this record to die. So all of a sudden, Europe, Latin America, Canada A it's like a new life. Maybe they'll give it the chance it never had."
Regardless of how the Brits and Swiss react, the Mavs have positioned themselves as one of the favorites of the Nashville cognoscenti. George Jones's wife complained to Reynolds that her husband plays the band's tape constantly in his pickup truck, and Johnny Cash and Mary-Chapin Carpenter (not to mention Reynolds's significant other, Trisha Yearwood) have all paid respects.
"Bob and I still pinch each other when we meet these people," smiles Deakin.
"I don't know," says the self-effacing Reynolds. "Is it just industry pleasantries, or do they really like us?"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"It was fun to see our videos on VH-1, and it's always nice when you hear one of your songs for the first time somewhere outside of Miami, but the thing I got the biggest tingle out of was Northern Exposure," reveals Deakin, referring to the revolutionary television program's use of "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" during a scene.
"It's been a great year," repeats Deakin on reflection.
If all goes well, the band will soon begin rehearsing their follow-up recording. Malo is currently hard at work collaborating on a new batch of songs with the likes of Heartbreaker Stan Lynch and NRBQ's Al Anderson.
"The songs he's got are some neat little tunes," says Reynolds. "Now all they need is the Mavericks' touch."
The Mavericks perform with Mary Karlzen at 10:00 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $10.