Country music is the world's most accessible poetry. When done right, the simple imagery sung in a timeless twang tells the stories behind our tears — the heartbreak and drunken mistakes. Oly and Nick County (couple Oly Vargas and Nick Mencia) have joined forces to adapt the genre for the tropics.
Nick is working on his sophomore release with backing band the Rainbow Smoke — Coco Rico Simpático Corazón. He describes his music as “capital-C country music — the C stands for 'Chihuahua'" — referencing its Mexican roots. He also hosts a Thursday-night country party at downtown Miami's Mama Tried called Satan's River. Oly is a singer-songwriter who has long been an integral part of the local music scene through her music and girl-centric events such as Let's Sang and Lash.
They are teaming up with other musicians to perform as a supergroup, the Unknown Legends, to play each musician's songs and covers of Lucinda Williams, Harry Nilsson, and others. The show is called the First Waltz, a title inspired by the Band's live collaborative Thanksgiving performance, the Last Waltz.
Nick and Oly will perform some duets, and there will also be solo performances by musicians Danie l Milewski, Rick Moon, and D.C. Perez. In addition to featuring Oly and Nick, the Unknown Legends will include Rick Moon, Juan Ledesma formerly of Krisp, D.C. Perez, Jason Mavila, James Goldberg, and Jorge Graupera, formerly of Plains.
To find out more about what motivates Nick and Oly to activate country sounds in these not-so-country-friendly parts, New Times spoke with the two artists about it in-depth.
New Times: Where are you from, and how did you get your start in music?
Nick County: I am from rural Pennsylvania. Played cello and saxophone; played bass. [My] postrock friends wouldn’t play country songs with me, so I bought a guitar when I was living and working in this motel in Malta, New York, and learned all the Hank Williams songs.
Oly: I was born in L.A.; both of my parents are from Mexico City. My family is very musical, but they aren’t musicians. My parents were the ones dancing at everyone’s parties. My mom swears Shakira stole her dance moves.
In the '80s, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time listening to music in the living room with my dad's extra-big '70s cans. I remember when my brother brought home [the Beastie Boys'] License to Ill on vinyl — it was a foldout with the plane on the inside. We would record our own raps, but they were terrible. The first song I memorized was Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All." I would sing it over and over until I could hold the note at the end as long as she could, around 6 or 7 years old. The second song I learned was "Colors" by Ice-T.
I met a group of ragamuffins at Hidden Lake in West Kendall in the mid-'90s when I was starting high school. They were older than me and had a loose-knit band that would get together. Somehow I got involved, singing at first, and then I learned bass or whatever instrument I could get my grubby hands on. We felt punk rock but did Pixies, Velvet Underground, and Jane's Addiction covers. I was the only girl, but they taught me how to play and supported me 110 percent.
Describe your work — both musical and events you've done — separately and how you decided to work together.
Nick: I wanted to be a writer, but the stories and the novels I wrote were not good. And I got pretty discouraged when a writer I admired told me how long it took him to write a novel one time. I was deeply moved by the lean poetry of country songs, as I have a warbling way of talking and speaking — never really get anywhere — and I thought it would be good for my communication if I learned how to be more direct. Or maybe I was a sad kid and I finally found something that explained all the feelings I didn’t understand. Or maybe I became a sad adult when I wanted to feel that one true thing that I heard in all those songs. Turns out a lean little country song that sings from the heart might be just as hard as writing a fat ol' big-time novel. I wouldn’t know. Either way, I like country songs, and I have been chasing the perfect roll ever since.
Oly: I released a seven-inch with my band after high school called Gemma. It was a split, maybe released in 1999? We also had a CD that we gave to some friends. In 2005, I released A Hot Hooray solo EP, with a song featured on a tween TV show. I’ve sung on other musicians' albums, like Milkshed, Dino Felipe, Otto Von Schirach, Norman Bambi, and had a couple one-off singles here and there, an 8-bit tune for label Relax Beat called "Lovely Machine," a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood cover with a collaboration I had called XOX.
I love throwing events, and a couple of my babies are Let's Sang, a karaoke party for music nerds; and Lash, a female DJ collective I'm currently booking events for.
Nick and I connected on a mutual love for Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. We both have always wanted to do duets.
How does your sound change when you collaborate with each other and with the Unknown Legends?
Nick: Hard to describe these things. Blood harmony is important. We bicker and talk over each other and fight for our ideas like a bunch of angry Chihuahuas. It’s fun to be in a band with so many people you love, especially your girlfriend — the milk to your mustard, the milk in your salt, the one person you want to ride horses with on a lazy, milky afternoon.
Oly: It’s way better — more mature and evolved, fleshed out. I’ve been in awe of the transformation a song makes in their hands — it’s wild. Working with Nick, I’ve been able to get better at telling a story instead of beating around the bush with lyrics.
How did you decide which musicians to include in the Unknown Legends?
Nick: I wish I had a funny answer for that. It was all very predictable: Guy meets girl at local dunk tank for mobile library anniversary. Girl likes Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Guy invents story about how Frank Sinatra had a bad gambling debt 'cause guy can't handle weed. Guy and girl meet guy, some more guys, more guys, one more guy, and — voila — you have a poof of Rainbow Smoke.
How do you practice with so many people? You're playing each other's songs?
Nick: "Perfect practice makes perfect," my friend and producer David Stern used to say and still does as often as he can.
Oly: Practicing with such a large group is a challenge. We have some strict no-noodling rules.
Nick: We make lots of different kinds of music. If you listen to everything, except country, you will love it. There’s Oly’s R&B songs, Rick Moon’s gothic confessionals, D.C.’s sophisticated pop for the Z generation and beyond, Juan’s sad and gentle meadow crooners, Jorge’s butterscotch doo-wop, and Jason’s Jon Secada covers.
Daniel Milewski is one of my favorite people in the world to write songs with, and he will be playing some of his heartbreaking songs, and later the Rainbow Smoke will be playing some songs we wrote together.
My good friend James Gold will be shredding and sliding with Oly and me as we run through some songs we wrote together.
What place does country music have in the Miami scene? And can you talk more about what kind of country music you're making so that people know what to expect?
Nick: It is a pivotal moment for the history of the music of Miami. This begins the great country period that the scholars are gonna love so much throughout the ages (also known as the gold period), and it starts right about now... It's a very exciting time.
It’s going to be a special night, and I don’t mind saying that. I know it will be something you can’t see every night, and it is very possibly the last show we will ever play. Now that might sound like a hill of nothing to you, but if you are the least bit interested in great songs performed well, I can promise you a spectacle of wild talents, disparate and unique each their own, plotting a chart through unknown waters without a flashlight or a boat or a net or suitable drinking water.
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Oly: Regarding Nick County and the Rainbow Smoke, it’s definitely more alt-country or rock 'n' roll. This isn't Hee Haw. It's just good songwriting with three chords and the truth, or so they say. Nick County will be releasing a full-length album soon called Coco Rico Simpático Corazón, which I’d describe as Americana from the tropics, for the tropics. Slowly but surely, Nick County is plotting a little Nashville down south; he even has a country night at Mama Tried on Thursdays called Satan's River.
What's your favorite song by the Band, you know, since you're taking cues from the Band?
Nick: That would be “When You Awake,” on the Band’s eponymous second album. I think you will agree it is the most superior because it starts exactly like this: “Oly told me I’m a fool.” And that’s true.
The First Waltz. With the Unknown Legends. 9 p.m. Friday, November 16, at Las Rosas, 2898 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; lasrosasbar.com. Admission is free.