"I felt as soon as I got here, this wasn't the music town for me," says country musician Nick Mencia, better known as Nick County. The lack of a country scene in Miami didn't bother him, though. When he moved from New York to the Magic City in 2011, he had already sold his instruments and thought he might be done with music anyway. But the rhythm did what it usually does: It got him. Reflecting on his return to music, he says, “You try to escape these things, but you can't."
The 35-year-old has been working on a trilogy of sorts: three albums geographically linked to places he's lived. With each record, County pieces together his identity through places and relationships, especially those with his family. The first, In the Valley of the Red Sun, was recorded as Nick County and the Big Texas Assholes and explores the time he spent as a young man in the Lone Star State. He recently released his second LP, Cocorico Simpatico Corazón, as Nick County and the Rainbow Smoke. The album is dedicated to his time in the tropics.
He penned the final song on the album in fitting Florida style: without power after Hurricane Irma. The storm blew a mango tree onto his roof, and he holed up to write in the candlelight of his piano room while sipping Budweiser and listening to the workers outside blasting Madonna. He was influenced by the boldness and bravado of calypso musicians. "I'm very insecure, and singing is very challenging for me emotionally," Mencia admits. "I drew [confidence] from these calypsonian singers." Inspiration also came from the happy summer days he spent in Puerto Rico as a kid at his aunt's restaurant and sailing with his uncle.
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Mencia's third album will take a look at less joyful times in his hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up a troubled kid who clashed with his straitlaced father. As a brown boy with a French mother and Cuban father in a white American town, he felt like an outsider. Mencia will explore his relationship with his parents on his next record. "I'm teasing out some of the father-son family stuff," he says of his upcoming music. "I've conflated a lot of the process of reconciliation with my father with a process of reconciliation with my town, where I'm from."
When his parents met and fell in love, they worked at a hospital in Washington, D.C. His father was a doctor with Jheri curls who listened to disco, and his mother was a nurse with bohemian proclivities. His father originally didn’t want a family of his own, but he changed his mind once Mencia came along. He wanted to hit the road Kerouac-style, but his father wanted him to take a more stable path and encouraged him to finish school before traveling. “He didn't accept my lifestyle choice, so that was hard on us," Mencia says. "I thought I knew everything." His father passed away a couple of months ago. "I felt we got a lot of peace and closure. He got to hear the [album] masters, and he really loved the songs, which was a great surprise to me and very validating. Kind of made me feel less guilty about pursuing this path," Mencia says.
Miami, it turns out, has become a comfortable home for Mencia. "I really love it down here. It's the only place I've felt a sense of belonging,” he says, “I never get bored with the energy. I like that dichotomy — the peace and tranquility of the Caribbean, but it also has this psychotic, frenetic energy. I kind of need both to survive."
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And though the Miami music scene in 2011 wasn’t a welcome one for country musicians, in 2019, Mencia has met like-minded creatives who are making space for their sounds. "I have a little bit of a community of musicians, now more than ever before,” he says. Alongside collaborator and partner Oly Vargas — better known simply as Oly — and friend Julian Martin, Mencia launched the label Public Works, which has helped grow that community. "We're expanding our family," he says.
"Nick has taken great interest in nurturing young songwriters, and it's important to us to help our artists grow, and we're hoping to do songwriting workshops in the future," Vargas says. Mencia offered her "rigorous country music training," which helped her appreciate artists such as Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens, Johnny Fritz, and Erin Rae. That education even influenced her own songwriting process. "I also like the idea of not jib-jabbing around to get the heart of a song. Country music gets right to the point, and that resonates now with me more than ever."
Musician Daniel Milewski, who used to own the coffee shop and watering hole Lester's in Wynwood, has been a touchstone for him musically as someone with whom he collaborates and workshops songs. Mencia has also worked with Juan Ledesma, formerly of Krisp; Rick Moon; and Jacuzzi Boys' Danny Gonzalez. Other local artists with Americana sensibilities he admires are Rachel Angel, First World, Baby Bear Lo-Fi, and Jason Joshua.
Just as Mencia is enjoying more of the music coming out of Miami, locals are getting turned on to his music. They've turned out for his recent album-release party at Gramps and tuned into his set on the WLRN program Folk & Acoustic Music. "I don't think there's any reason people here wouldn't like country music,” he says. “It doesn't matter what the category is — it's people who are trying to do the best they can with actual songs. Sometimes that's enough."