On their 1993 album, What a Crying Shame, the Mavericks demonstrated just how good feeling bad really can be. Brooding ballads about breakups and lost love, tinted with the retro glow of Buck Owens, George Jones, and Roy Orbison -- and embodied by lead singer Raul Malo's haunting lilt of a voice -- jettisoned the country quartet to platinum status. Now, after spending the last year on the road opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Mavericks successfully have proven to be an earnest antidote to Nashville's bevy of empty hat-guy acts. In the process, they've made a name for themselves by wearing their Fifties roots-rock influences -- not to mention their broken hearts -- on their sleeves. And with the release of their new album, the aptly titled Music for All Occasions, the Mavs mix it up a little, not so much by shaking off any of What a Crying Shame's musical homages, but rather by adding a few new ones. Namely Ray Conniff and Percy Faith.
You read that correctly: that Ray Conniff and that Percy Faith, the best-selling late-Fifties/early-Sixties easy-listening schlockmeisters. Conniff is best remembered for his chorus-of-a-thousand voices "Somewhere, My Love" (from the film Dr. Zhivago), while Faith put the "ak" in Muzak with "Theme From A Summer Place," which spent nine (!) weeks at number one on the pop charts at the beginning of 1960.
"Yeah, the Conniff thing works for me," says Mavericks bassist and unofficial chat-line host Robert Reynolds, calling from "grape-stomping territory" in Northern California. Seems all those days spent on the road (some 300 dates a year) give the band members time to listen to a lot of traveling music, and, apparently, they've absorbed several surprising influences. "We've just been having a gas buying and listening to this funky music on the road," notes Reynolds. "Those influences sort of come through on our records." (And in their live shows. This past July in Boston, for example, the Mavericks opened their set with the above-mentioned orchestral classic by Percy Faith; a couple of months before that, Malo launched into a version of Pearl Jam's "Even Flow.")
Before concocting their variation on the Nashville Sound, the Mavericks -- Reynolds, Malo, and drummer Paul Deakin, and then-guitarist Ben Peeler -- honed their chops as a Miami bar band, playing the club scene in the late Eighties and early Nineties at places such as Tobacco Road, the Island Club, and the Lasso Lounge. Along with original guitarist Ben Peeler, the Mavs recorded their self-titled debut album on the local Y&T Music label in 1990, before signing with MCA Records and heading off to live in Nashville. (Peeler had earlier departed and Nick Kane joined the group. Reynolds deems the change "a tough subject.") The group's major-label debut, 1992's From Hell to Paradise, garnered praise but not a lot of sales. And then Crying Shame turned out to be anything but.
Deakin describes the new record as "a companion piece to the one before it. I can't say which is better. But I think the two [Crying Shame and Music] have ended up nicely as bookends." Adds Kane, "I think it has to do with Raul going a step further with the new record in paying homage to his influences and his musical heroes. Raul is a huge fan of the era of music from the late Fifties to the early Sixties. Crying Shame was already heading in that direction. And with Music it's there. The statement has been made."
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In truth, Music for All Occasions has all the elements of one big cheese log: lush echo vocals ("Foolish Heart"), easygoing swingers ("One Step Away"), pristine string arrangements ("Missing You"), and Floyd Cramer "slip-note" piano ("My Secret Flame," courtesy of Mavericks fraternity pledge Jerry Dale McFadden). With the help of Flaco Jimenez, they toss in a little Tex-Mex on "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down," and round it out with a Ray Price shuffle on "The Writing on the Wall." Truly nostalgic, the record is even available on vinyl and features an album jacket that would make Mitch Miller gleam, with liner-note instructions on how to handle an LP properly.
Yet as the Mavs walk the fine line between parody and appreciation, Music for All Occasions -- with all of its kitschy nuances -- still amounts to one gorgeous throwback. In fact, they go so far as to close out the album with a cover of "Somethin' Stupid," Nancy and papa Frank Sinatra's kissy-face love song from 1967. On paper this looks like a real hoot. But when Malo and guest singer Trisha Yearwood (Mrs. Robert Reynolds) wrap their voices around one another's, what starts as a gag turns into a genuine and affecting tribute. It's a paradox that works beautifully, much like the entire album. "I think some people won't get it," Reynolds acknowledges. "They'll just see it as tongue-in-cheek. But to us the only thing humorous was trying to do a song like that in the first place. Once we got down to putting it together, it was no longer a joke. We just liked it because it's a kind of clever little gem from our childhoods."
Other childhood gems that the Mavericks recently have unearthed include a cover of the Marcels' 1961 hit "Blue Moon," the new rendition showing up on the soundtrack of the movie Apollo 13 ("It was very cool being asked to do this," Reynolds points out), and their version of Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways," produced by Nick Lowe, which will appear on an upcoming Holly tribute album. "That was excellent!" exclaims Kane. "One of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had in the studio."
After wrapping up the current leg of their tour in Canada, the Mavericks will return to Miami in November to perform at Sunrise Musical Theatre with Carpenter. As for the foreseeable future, they'll continue to redraw the boundaries of new country music while keeping one foot firmly planted in the past. "We like dichotomy -- happy little melodies with tragic lyrics," concludes Deakin. "It's fun pushing the envelope a little bit." Kane agrees: "Yeah, like getting to the point where we can hire bands like Anthrax to open for us. That's where I want to be.