TE AMO, SAN ANTO
The musical crossroads of the Alamo City.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
It’s half past ten on a sleepy Sunday morning at the corner of 24th and Ruiz on El West Side, San Antonio’s historic Mexican-American neighborhood. A steady parade of people enter and exit the red mesh metal screen door of the Kelly-green stucco building adorned with a painting depicting a sweating fat pig in a boiling pot.
Welcome to Carnitas Uruapan. The spare, fluorescent-lit eatery is all function and funk—nothing fancy to look at. But the customers lining up at the counter ordering their carnitas (pork braised by lard), barbacoa (shredded beef parts from the head and cheeks of a cow), and tamales, to eat in or take out, aren’t there to soak up the atmosphere. Neither are the clusters of people sitting at tables, who happen to be gazing in the opposite direction away from the serving counter and looking instead toward the one-step stage across the room, between the men’s and women’s bathrooms.
They watch a small, slight older man with perfectly coiffed waves of salt-and-pepper hair and oversized frame glasses work magic on a small button accordion. Santiago Jimenez, Junior—the focus of their attention—is a National Heritage Fellow, designated by National Endowment for the Arts.
He is also a neighborhood institution, and considers Carnitas Uruapan his Sunday morning practice session. He leads a bajo sexto twelve-string guitarist and a drummer through “Viva Seguin,” “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio” and “La Inundacion de Piedras Negras” (the Piedras Negras flood)—all songs popularized by his father, Don Santiago Jimenez, considered one of the founding fathers of the South Texas–Mexican sound known as conjunto—along with other traditional tunes. Jimenez also shows off the student he’s teaching, a sixteen-year-old by the name of Darren Prieto, who is dueting with him onstage and letting him play on his own with his band, and makes room for heavyweight guests like Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs, a master of the bajo sexto, the primary instrument accompanying the accordion in the conjunto sound.
Now and then, Luis Almanza, the owner of Carnitas Uruapan, steps onstage to harmonize and duet with Jimenez, norteno-style. Still wearing his apron as he croons, Almanza manages to project unintentional cool. The whole room is that kind of cool, starting with Santiago, the fast-talkin’, chain-smokin’, beer drinkin’ Sunday morning superstar, who calls me Willie, remembering the Willie Nelson biography I gave to him.
On the right side of the stage is a bucket with a sign that reads Happy Birthday, El Chief—a nod to Jimenez’s nickname. Visitors are welcome to drop some bills or coins in the bucket. The sign and the bucket are there year-round. His wife, sitting at the table by the side of the stage, has CDs for sale.
Taking a break, Santiago works the room, posing for photographs, drinking from the stash of Miller Lite that Almanza saves for him, greeting guests and letting his student Prieto front his band while he wanders off with the owner to sit down with a table of newcomers. He eventually returns to the stage to join the rest of the band, which never stopped playing with the kid in the lead.
This goes on until one o’clock in the afternoon when Santiago has drained the last of his Miller Lite’s and starts to show it. That means it’s time for everybody to go home, concluding what regular Mike Davila calls The Hurting Hearts of Hohner Sunday morning church service.
The accordion floats my boat. It’s associated with the greatest indigenous sounds heard throughout Texas—from zydeco, Cajun, Czech, German, western swing, country and blues to Tejano and conjunto, the bouncy rhythmic sound Jimenez, Junior, plays. If you can’t make Sunday morning accordion church, you can eavesdrop on the sound anytime in San Antonio by tuning in 1540 KEDA-AM, Radio Jalapeno, which brags being the only full-time conjunto station in the nation, meaning lots of accordions and polkas along with bilingual announcers who reflect the street language of the city.
I’ve written hundreds of stories about music in articles and books over the years, but only once have I crossed over to write, perform and record a song. It was, of course, an accordion-powered anthem called “Te Amo, San Anto.” The first two words are Spanish for “I love you.” “San Anto” is local slang for San Antonio, which is also variously referred to as the Alamo City, Big Tony, SA and San Quilmas.
I sang about the friendly people, the Alamo, the missions, raspas (local snowcones), Fiesta, chili and the atmospherics of place. And I meant what I sang.
One of the great things about San Antonio’s Tex-Mex mashup culture is that you don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to get it (though lyrics are probably sung in that language more than in English). The city’s Mexican-ness seeps into your being one way or another. It’s in the thick semi-tropical climate and the clear artesian spring water that bubbles up from deep below the surface, and it’s baked into the people.
When it came time to actually make music instead of just write or talk about it, I chose San Antonio as my subject because I love the city and its musical heritage. [Note: Good luck finding the album the song was featured on, Life Out There, a various artists’ compilation of oddball music produced by Carl Finch of the nuclear polka band Brave Combo.] The melody was a polka because that’s what Texas-Mexicans in San Antonio play at dances, having appropriated the central European music tradition from German, Czech and Polish bands that brought polka to Texas in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Tex-Mex version of polka—conjunto—is pepped-up and assertively rhythmic, earning its description as musica alegre, or “happy music,” making the European iteration sound constipated by comparison.
Conjunto is one folk music tradition that isn’t dying or fading away. Conjunto Heritage Taller, a non-profit school that teaches accordion to adults and kids as young as seven, is turning out new generations of players to follow in the footsteps of local maestros Mingo Saldivar, Flaco Jimenez, Santiago Jimenez, David Lee Garza, David Farias, Josh Baca and Juanito Castillo. The cool kids aren’t just taking lessons. They’re making their own sounds, as is the case of Pinata Protest, a hyper-speed combo who sound like the punk band the Ramones, if only they’d grown up in San Antonio instead of New York. The opening of the Squeezebox Cantina on the St. Mary’s Strip of bars and clubs just north of downtown signaled the validation of the sound as a hip, cool local thing to dance to and be proud of. Conjunto legends and rising young accordionists dominate the bill on weekends.
Tejano is conjunto’s uptown other: large ensembles with horns, keyboards, extra percussion, electronics and stage shows, songs sung mostly in Spanish, accordions occasionally featured, more cumbias and pop and contemporary country than polkas and blues or classic country. Tejano’s biggest star Selena Quintanilla was tragically killed by the president of her fan club in 1995, and she continues to cast a long shadow on the music and its performers. Little Joe, Intocable, Ruben Ramos, Michael Salgado, Elida Reyna y Avante and Grupo Limite are some of the Tejano acts working the San Antonio dancehall circuit, which includes Tejano Country and Graham Central Station. KXTN-FM Tejano 107.5 airs Tejano music 24/7.
Four things transpired in the early twentieth century to define music in twenty-first century San Antonio. First came the icehouse, every neighborhood’s destination of choice in summer months before air conditioning was invented. Icehouses were the places where one could pick up ice for their “ice box”—the refrigerator before there was refrigeration, as it were. Icehouses were also where you went to buy food, refreshments, and beer, or linger awhile visiting with friends, play pool, toss horseshoes out back and listen to music. Icehouses go a long way to explain why people in San Antonio know how to hang out so artfully.
Despite technological advances, icehouses persist in San Antonio. Two fine examples where music is part of the fabric are Sanchez Ice House #1, with their outdoor patio dance floor and jukebox loaded with Tejano records; and Connie’s Ice House on the Southside, featuring live conjunto and Tejano bands.
World War One, the Great War, was another shape-shifter. The war established San Antonio as a military town. The army at Fort Sam Houston had several brass-heavy bands, as did the flying troops at Randolph and Kelly fields, some of the nation’s first air military training facilities. Music went hand in glove with marching. The military presence also helped temper Jim Crow segregation laws that were observed in San Antonio.
That tolerance and San Antonio’s tri-ethnic foundation—it was black, white, and brown while other cities in the South were black and white—encouraged removal of racial barriers and restrictions, especially when music was involved.
On the heels of World War One came the birth of electronic recording in 1925. Record companies seeking talent would set up a recorder in a hotel room to capture music, which could be made into a 78 rpm shellac record that could be sold to music listeners. San Antonio became a favored annual destination for labels such as Victor and Columbia to record music, reflecting the city and region’s rich cultural and musical diversity. Ralph Peer recorded three songs on Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman and country music’s first singing star, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio in 1931. Englishman Don Law, working for the American Record Corporation, later Columbia Records, came to the Gunter Hotel downtown to record bluesman Robert Johnson, from Mississippi, in 1936, one of two recording sessions Johnson ever made. Two years later, Law returned to record the signature piece by the premier western swing band in the Southwest, “San Antonio Rose” by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
Solo artists such as Lydia Mendoza, the first female singing star from Texas, accordion pioneers Narciso Martinez and Bruno Villarreal, western swing bands including Tex-Czech pioneers Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians, the Tune Wranglers and Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, as well as black swing bands such as Troy Floyd and the Plaza Hotel Orchestra, who recorded for Okeh, and Blue Bird recording artists Boots & His Buddies, raised their profiles thanks to San Antonio recording sessions.
Don Albert is another one of the early twentieth century ingredients in the secret salsa that separates San Antonio music from everywhere else. Albert Anite Dominique was a Creole trumpet player and bandleader from New Orleans who emigrated to San Antonio rather than to Kansas City or Chicago, picking up with the Troy Floyd Orchestra, a hot territory band based at the Shadowland Ballroom in the late-nineteen-twenties. Albert mixed the New Orleans sound he grew up on with the hard-swinging Texas blues he was exposed to when he formed Don Albert and His Ten Pals, debuting at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas in 1929. Billed as “America’s Greatest Swing Band,” Albert’s boys barnstormed throughout the country for ten years, recording numerous 78s, and playing prestigious ballrooms coast to coast.
Albert stopped touring to open Don’s Keyhole Club on the east side. The Keyhole catered to a sophisticated black clientele while welcoming whites and browns with torch dancers and a floorshow, in addition to musical attractions. Advertisements billed the club as “The First Integrated Nightclub in the South.” Don Albert knew the score: San Antonio wasn’t really the South, except when authorities wanted it to be; more importantly, music people around these parts paid no never mind to segregation laws.
That era of traditional jazz perseveres on Tuesdays and most Saturdays at Tucker’s Kozy Korner, a soulful tiny bar/listening room on the eastern edge of downtown that is almost as old as the featured music. Swing unplugged is the main fare provided by a quartet featuring pianist John Sheridan under the direction of Jim Cullum, Jr., the cornet player who also fronts the seven-piece Jim Cullum Jazz Band and hosts the weekly Riverwalk Jazz broadcast nationally on Public Radio International.
The majority of visitors to San Antonio get their whiff of local music flavor from the mariachis working the tables at Mi Tierra, Pico de Gallo and La Margarita—all at or near El Mercado on the western edge of downtown.
Mariachi ensembles, consisting of guitars, violins, and trumpets and decked out in sombreros and western Mexico charro stage outfits, play traditional Mexican fare such as “Guadalajara” and “Volver, Volver.” The look may be cartoonish, but the rich, brassy sound resonates. High schools in the southern part of Texas have their own mariachis in addition to marching bands, which compete in a statewide competition held every March in San Antonio.
Within a half mile of the mariachi-fied eateries is David Blanco’s La Musica de San Anto mural on a wall below the West Commerce Street overpass leading west from downtown. The mural tells a deeper musical story of the city’s Mexican-American musical heroes, portraying the likenesses of the singers Lydia Mendoza, Rosita Fernandez and Eva Garza; guitarists Randy Garibay and Felix Villarreal; saxophonist Rocky Morales; accordionist Valerio Longoria; and drummer Manny Castillo. The black man honking the sax next to Morales is Clifford Scott, co-author of the R&B instrumental classic “Honky Tonk.”
The screaming white guy with the guitar wearing a cowboy hat and a Lone Star beer t-shirt is Doug Sahm, the native son who was a country steel guitar prodigy, a teenage rhythm and blues and rock and roll sensation, leader of the sixties-era pop band the Sir Douglas Quintet, and founder of the Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornados. Sahm came from German stock, but effortlessly soaked up San Antonio’s indigenous sounds and sang and played them to the world. He passed away in 1999, and two surviving associates, keyboardist, accordionist and singer Augie Meyers and accordionist Flaco Jimenez, are San Antonio’s musical superstars. I regard Sahm as Texas’ single most-talented musician who could play any style authentically, so important and underappreciated that I directed a documentary film about him, Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. I seek out Meyers and Jimenez whenever I can, which is usually when they are performing with the Texas Tornados or guesting with Los Texmaniacs. Seeing either, or Santiago Jimenez, Jr. for that matter, is watching living history that sounds like nowhere else but San Antonio.
Finding these exotic sounds sometimes requires looking under the rug. Every style of San Antonio music, it seems, has its own insider scene.
Musicians schooled in the trio tradition popular in Mexico and Texas in the early and mid twentieth century, recalling Ediye Gorme and Trio Los Panchos, converge on La Flor de Chiapas, a Mexican cafe on El West Side on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to pass around guitars, recall the good old days, and sing a few. Ranchera singer Rita Vidaurri, who performed with Gorme and Los Panchos in New York in the early nineteen fifties, shows up on Tuesdays to sing a song or two. The informal concerts start around 10:30 am.
Mexican-American rhythm and blues and rock bands from San Antonio popular in the fifties and sixties have been discovered by record collectors who pay hundreds of dollars for 45 rpm singles by acts like Sunny and the Sunliners, the first Mexican-American band to appear on “American Bandstand” with their hit “Talk To Me,” Lil’ Henry, the Royal Jesters, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters and Rudy T. Gonzales of Rudy & The Reno-Bops. Cleto Escobedo of The Dell-Kings, a popular R&B band in the early sixties, plays in front of a national audience five nights a week as a horn player in his son’s band, Cleto and the Cletones, which provide the music for ABC late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
DJ Jason Saldana showcases the classic El West Side sound in several city clubs. Pueblo Hall and Activity Center on El West Side, one of the most storied dancehalls in the city, presents Friday Night Spotlight Dances with a house tribute band that specializes in SA Oldies, along with special guests from the era.
George Rivas’ Burgers, Brews and Blues in the Woodlawn Lake neighborhood is good place to find the West Side Horns, the go-to brass section of the West Side Sound that works with many SA bands. George Rivas’ brother Henry Rivas blows sax alongside trumpeter Al Gomez and the saxophone veteran Louis Bustos. The Horns also show at the big Monday night jam at VJ’s Squeeze Inn #2.
Punks and alt types gravitate to Bang Bang Bar, a vinyl dive club with live music on the northwest side run by Jenn Alva and Phanie Lopez of the contemporary punk band Girl In A Coma.
Roots and Americana local and road acts are the main fare at Sam’s Burger Joint. Luna Music Bar and Hi-Tones specialize in all kinds of eclectic music including Latin jazz, soul and blues bands. Club Rio is the go-to place for Rock En Espanol and Latin pop and rock touring acts.
San Antonio–style country music is a whole other deal, of course. Country around these parts is considered dance music made for doing the Texas Two-Step, a waltz and kicking your boots while doing the Cotton-Eyed Joe. The dance steps are powered by fiddles-and-steel Western swing, a provincial, jazz variation of country during the nineteen thirties and forties that never lost favor.
San Antonio country ranges from locally-raised traditionalists like Johnny Bush, the Willie Nelson protégé whose soaring vocals earned him the title of the Country Caruso, honky-tonk revivalist Justin Trevino, Augie Meyers’s funky Tex-Mexified country, and the country swing band Two Tons of Steel to accordionista Mingo Saldivar, the Conjunto Cowboy, whose cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” reworked into “Rueda de Fuego” was a hit in Mexico, and either Jimenez brother’s rendition of “Open Up Your Heart And Let My Love Come In.”
The sign out in front of John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, on the northwest fringe of San Antonio, still advertises Willie Nelson Every Sat. Nite. While that was true for several months after Nelson’s house in Nashville burned down in 1970, Willie only stops in every now and then at Floore’s. The rest of the time, the venue offers an authentic country-western music and dance experience, no matter if the featured act is performing inside the rickety wood-framed dancehall or outside on the open-air patio. Tamales are the house specialty.
Real country and western can also be found at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, a 150-year old dancehall some forty minutes north of downtown San Antonio in the revived ghost town of Gruene, and at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar in Bandera, the Cowboy Capital of America, about an hour’s drive northwest of downtown. Clubs, joints, dance halls and icehouses offer the most intimate and direct music experiences, but San Antonio’s festivals offer the easiest access to a whole lot of music at once. Plus, more often than not, it’s free.
Bands are playing outdoors every weekend somewhere in SA from March through December. Go-spots for music events include La Villita Historic Arts Village downtown, El Mercado, the historic Market Square on the western edge of downtown, Sunset Station on the eastern edge of downtown and the rehabbed Pearl Brewery on the near north side. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center inside the historic Guadalupe Theater on the west side presents all kinds of music tied to San Antonio’s heritage throughout the year, with a particular focus on conjunto and the El West Side Sound.
Four events highlight San Antonio’s annual music calendar. The accordion, which I regard as the National Instrument of Texas because so many different ethnic groups employ the squeezebox as their music’s lead instrument, is celebrated at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in Rosedale Park on El West Side, which attracts thousands of fans from around the world every May, and at the International Accordion Festival in the fall at La Villita.
San Antonio’s Inner Cowboy surfaces for a fortnight every February during the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, when country music becomes preferred sound of the town.
Music permeates San Antonio’s biggest bash, the ten-day, ten-night Fiesta in April. This all-purpose party exists for no other reason than to throw a big citywide party. Like New Orleans, the city basically shuts down to celebrate with parades, dances, cookouts and breakfasts, more dances, more parades and parties. Take it as a compliment if someone cracks a colored egg over your head; the dyed eggs are cascarones, filled with confetti.
Two less-than-obvious, museum-worthy repositories tell San Antonio’s music stories. The South Texas Popular Culture Center presents San Antonio-specific music exhibits while local bands from the past and present perform on weekends.
Del Bravo Record Shop brags a neon-colored museum within its record racks, paying tribute to Tejano and conjunto bands in photographs and ephemera, with a special corner dedicated to pioneering singing star Lydia Mendoza, featuring the Lark of the Border’s stage dresses that she made herself.
Did I forget to mention San Antonio is the Heavy Metal capital of the South, Detroit al sur? Back in the nineteen seventies, Ozzy Osbourne, lead singer for British metal pioneers Black Sabbath, drunkenly urinated on the Alamo after playing a concert nearby. Ozzy was arrested and banned for several years from playing San Antonio. But to young Mexican-American boys who’d grown up hearing the Alamo myth (shorthand: Anglos good; Mexicans bad), Ozzy’s unintentional act was heroic.
Bands such as AC/DC, Rush and Motley Crue found their first American audiences in San Antonio while city officials brought in numerous “consultants” warning of the music’s deleterious effects. Judging from the box office receipts, the metal-heads won the argument.
Weird? Well, maybe, depending on what your definition of weird is. Exotic and provincial? Seguro que Hell Yes! The Sunday morning scene at Carnitas Uraupan synchs neatly with past experiences: witnessing a guitarist named Felix Villarreal play his instrument with his teeth, then sing BB King en espanol at a place called Club Oo-La-La; seeing Bongo Joe beat his two 40 gallon oil drums with handmade shakers down by the Riverwalk while improvising raps—twenty years before rap became a thing; hearing Augie Meyers and Jack Barber playing in the corner of a Mexican restaurant a week after the Texas Tornados drew ten thousand to an outdoor concert; visiting old landmarks with the sax legend Spot Barnett, who knew all the old joints; enjoying a Floore’s store crowd dancing to Willie instead of watching him.
That’s the San Antonio I’ve come to know and love, deep within my heart, with a melody and song all its own. Like nowhere else.
JOE NICK PATOSKI is the author of several music biographies, including Willie Nelson: An Epic Life and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire. In addition to writing about music, he hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, a weekly public radio show spotlighting the last century of Lone Star sound.