A COUPLE of years ago, when the Country Music Association needed a voice to represent the dozen new inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, it called on Raul Malo to sing a selection of songs representative of the class of 2001, which included Waylon Jennings, Don Gibson, Bill Anderson, Webb Pierce, Homer & Jethro, the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. Malo was drafted for the black-tie event mostly because his expressive baritone and expansive stylistic range made him the best candidate to handle the diverse styles represented by those artists.
Ironically, Nashville never could figure out what to do when Malo's band, the Mavericks, brought the same approach to their own work. Between 1992 and 1998, the Mavericks made four studio albums that freely mixed hardcore honky-tonk and country-rock, rockabilly and pop, Tejano and, toward the end of the decade, Latin rhythms reflecting Malo's Cuban American heritage.
The band reached its peak with 1994's "What a Crying Shame," which sold 1.2 million copies and produced four Top 30 singles and two straight Vocal Group of the Year awards from the CMA. But 1995's "Music for All Occasions" sold half as many albums, and the band's engagingly eclectic finale, "Trampoline," a third of that. Ironically, "Trampoline" was MCA's biggest-selling album that year everywhere in the world but the United States.
MCA would never have released Malo's solo album, "Today," which delved deeper into his polyglot musical heritage. Released on OmTown, the vocal division of New Age label Higher Octave, "Today" was a big-band-driven mix of classic pop, swing and salsa (with four songs sung in Spanish) featuring no country at all.
"I don't really consider myself a true and blue country artist," Malo says. "I love country music, and the roots of country, and I know a lot of country music. When the Mavericks started out, we obviously had a lot of country music in us. It's a big influence on popular culture and it's refreshing to hear it now in Norah Jones's [album] and I've always heard it in Bruce Springsteen's songs.
"Part of the frustration with the Mavericks is that once you're in the genre, it's really difficult to try other things, and a big label doesn't want to hear about a totally eclectic project or something different," Malo says. "I understand that from a business perspective, but I think good business is also to do good music, and you have to trust the artist to a certain degree and put it on the line. That's the reason you sign an artist and that was always our biggest complaint with MCA."
MCA continued to collect on its investment with a live album and, so far, four greatest hits albums, but the Mavericks stopped performing a couple of years ago and everybody assumed they had broken up, particularly after Malo made "Today."
"We were friends all along; there was never any infighting," Malo says. "It was really more me wanting to break away from doing the same old same old. I get bored doing the same thing day in and day out and I love, and can do, so many kinds of music -- I love trying different things."
Funny thing, though: Over the course of the last few Mavericks albums, Malo had been concentrating on that marvelous voice of his at the expense of songwriting, but started to write again for "Today." When that project was completed, Malo found himself with "an album's worth of material that sounded like Mavericks songs." So the Mavericks will be reuniting for an upcoming album, which will likely beget a tour and at least one more go-round for one of the most critically acclaimed country acts of the '90s.
The album will be released on Malo's new label, the aptly named Sanctuary Records Group (the United Kingdom-based label recently purchased Silver Spring-based RAS Records and named former RAS owner Gary Himmelfarb general manager for its American reggae operations). Sanctuary is a rapidly expanding independent label (distributed by BMG) focused on veteran rock, reggae and country acts.
"It's such a strange time in the music business and the major labels are really struggling to keep up," Malo says. He's particularly impressed with Sanctuary's sensible notions of commercial scale and long-term career development -- as opposed to the majors' desire for quick turnaround on minimal investments -- and its willingness to give artists creative freedom. For instance, it will be a race to see what's next for Malo -- the Mavericks reunion or his Christmas album.
"I've never done one, and though people have asked me to do one for years, I always put it off," Malo explains. "But last year, I did a show with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, just a couple of songs, and I really enjoyed it! There's something very Bing Crosby-ish about it."
Of course, Crosby's not the crooner people have long been comparing with Malo. That would be Roy Orbison, whose towering, melodramatic tenor has been evoked by Malo on such songs as "I Should Have Been True," "Oh What a Thrill," "My Secret Flame" and "Let's Not Say Goodbye." Malo and Orbison actually teamed up once, albeit posthumously for Orbison, on a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." It was to be included on a compilation tribute album that was shelved by Orbison's widow, Barbara.
"It's a shame, because it's really cool and it was a thrill just singing on the same track as Roy," says Malo, who continues to participate in Orbison tributes whenever Barbara Orbison calls. "Are you kidding? He's one of my heroes."
Another big-voiced hero who seldom gets mentioned is Marty Robbins, who, before his death in 1982, was one of country music's most successful -- and diverse -- singer-songwriters. In many ways, Robbins was a Maverick of his time, lending his big voice to hard-country weepers, gunfighter ballads, pop standards, rock 'n' roll, Tex-Mex and even Hawaiian songs.
"You talk about a guy that was run out of Nashville, several times, just for doing things differently," Malo says. "The guy was really a trendsetter, and though he's in the Hall of Fame, he gets overlooked because he was an outsider who wanted to expand Nashville's musical vocabulary. He's definitely one of my heroes, as well."
Robbins's 1973 album, "Bound for Old Mexico (Great Hits From South of the Border)," could have served as inspiration for "Today," which was co-produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and pianist-arranger Alberto Salas, who are members of the Latin American all-star ensemble Los Super Seven. Malo had joined the group in 2000 for its second album, "Canto," which is how he connected to many of the musicians who played on "Today." That album was critically acclaimed, but its stylistic diversity and lack of country connections seemed to confuse consumers and, in a familiar routine, radio programmers, who totally ignored it.
"I can appreciate the fact I was even able to make the record," Malo says. "At the time, I didn't think it was that big a deal: I'm gonna make a hybrid album, which is what I've always done with the Mavericks. I never thought 'Today' was that different, but looking back on it now, it probably confused the issue to put that many Spanish songs on there. But the label [OmTown] gave me an opportunity to do whatever I wanted. You take chances and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I got to tour Europe with the great band that played on the record, so it was a great experience all around, even if it was a little disappointing, too."
Malo kept busy while waiting to find Sanctuary. His first post-Mavericks production was distaff maverick K.T. Oslin's "Live Close By, Visit Often," a boundary-busting, genre-straddling, straitjacket-shedding album that was, sadly, as ignored as "Today."
"That was a heartbreaker," Malo admits. "I thought it would do well for her. She wrote some incredible music and we worked really hard on it. But it's the same old same old -- country music label, pop record, they don't know what to do. I think they dropped the ball on that one."
The singer kept his own chops up with appearances on "Country Goes Raffi"; Los Straitjackets' first vocal foray (resurrecting Los Bravos' 1966 hit, "Black Is Black"); "Estoy Como Nunca," an album by Eliades Ochoa of the Buena Vista Social Club that featured "No Me Preguntes Tanto," a different version of a song that also appears on "Today"; and "Sopranos" star Dominic Chianese's belated recording debut, "Hits" (Malo duets with the 70-year-old actor on the classic "Santa Lucia").
"A friend asked me to do the Raffi, which I did, hoping no one would hear it," Malo laughs. "But I like doing different stuff and I've scored a couple of children's films and that's fun, little projects that no one hears about."
And he's just finished producing "a fantastic album" for Rick Trevino, the bilingual Texas country singer who's also a member of Los Super Seven. "People are going to be blown away by his singing," Malo promises. "I'm as proud of this record as of anything I've ever done."
RAUL MALO -- Appearing Monday with Greta Gaines at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Raul Malo, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)