The lines between traditional Mexican music and American country music have long blurred near the border (and beyond), with each influencing the other. Yet it took decades before Nashville fully accepted a Mexican-American artist into its fold: Johnny Rodriguez, who grew up in South Texas listening to both genres as well as the full gamut of American pop, became the one of the first in the early 1970s thanks to both his supernatural gifts as a singer and the defense of the then massive singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall.
Below are some of Rodriguez’s best and most important songs, explained in the context of his incredibly important story.
Johnny Rodriguez’s origin story is perfect for country music lore: arrested for stealing a goat near his hometown of Sabinal, Texas, the singer was released early after serenading the sheriff for a few time. A Texas Ranger who heard him sing introduced him to the man who would become his manager, and then that man, JT “Happy” Shahan, had him perform on a local stage that also hosted national stars including Tom T. Hall. Hall heard him and, apocryphally, invited him straight to Nashville.
Rodriguez became a member of Hall’s band, and soon the legendary songwriter was telling anyone who wanted to hear about his new discovery – including his record label, Mercury, who soon signed Rodriguez and released an LP full of songs he Rodriguez co-wrote with Hall. Introducing Johnny Rodriguez was an instant sensation, a relatively bare-bones showcase of Rodriguez’s flawless vocals and compelling country songwriting that included both a Spanish-language version of Jenny Lou Carson’s “Jealous Heart” and “Easy Come, Easy Go.” , a song by then up-and-coming outlaw Billy Joe Shaver.
His pedal steel-laden debut single, 1972’s “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)” peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s country charts (rising as “Old Dogs, Children And Watermelon Wine” de Hall was No. 1) and earned Rodriguez the Academy of Country Music award for “Most Promising Artist”. It only took one more single, “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me),” for Rodriguez to become the youngest man to top the country charts – a record that stood until 2012. His first No. 1, one of co-written with Hall, had a softly melodic chorus that made the most of Rodriguez’s effortless vocals and made a vocal that pervaded. Billboard said “might just turn out to be the youth with a shot in the arm that country music has long sorely needed” in 1973.
Riding on that momentum, plus a joint tour with another young star Tanya Tucker, Rodriguez reached No. 1 with his next two singles, “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico” – Rodriguez’s own composition – and “That’s The Way Love Goes”, the first hit recording of the now classics Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. .Air Shafer. “Mexico” was also the biggest pop crossover of his career, reaching No. 70 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Johnny Rodriguez’s Radio Reign
Between 1974 and 1976, Johnny Rodriguez released five more top ten country albums which included a host of radio hits. “We’re Over,” the Mann-Weil composition Rodriguez brought to country listeners before Glenn Campbell included it on rhinestone cowboy, has again proven its bona fide pop. The dramatic ballad used a piano and string section where Rodriguez usually had a traditional country band, but it still felt easy and natural.
Rodriguez returned to No. 1 on the country charts for the fourth time in 1975 with Larry Gatlin’s “I Just Can’t Get Her Out Of My Mind,” a soulful two-step with all the trappings of Texas dancehall. At 23, Rodriguez was already dominant, credited with helping to reinvigorate country music sales nationwide with his smooth, deep voice. While his singles weren’t monotonous, they mostly matched the fashionable pop and country sounds of the time – with hints of stripped-down Texas traditionalism shining through.
He followed “Mind” with two more highs – the epic chamber ballad “Just Get Up (And Close The Door)” and the vaguely calypso-tinged “Love Put A Song In My Heart.” The latter was his first single on which he sang in Spanish, despite his penchant for reinterpreting English and Spanish country classics on his albums. It was his last number 1.
Rodriguez remained a staple of country radio into the 1980s, however. “Down On The Rio Grande,” a sweet “Margaritaville”-adjacent tribute to the iconic river with steel embellishments, reached No. 6 on Billboard’s country chart in 1979. It was his first release after moving to Epic. Records, where he would find more success with country’s neo-traditional turn: “How Could I Love Her So Much” and “Foolin'”, written by iconic Bakersfield guitarist Ralph Mooney, both found the singer a replacement for classic country sounds in the top ten in 1983. .
Johnny Rodriguez’s Outlaw Ties
As Johnny Rodriguez’s Texas peers – especially willie nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson – began to turn their underdog posture into major pop sales, the singer was sometimes thrust into the “outlaw” category due to his Lone Star origins (and nothing more) . But sometimes he adopted it. Billy Joe Shaver’s songs remained a staple in his catalog, and he even released one – “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” – as a single in the final days of his reign over country radio, la pushing into the top five of the leaderboard.
One of the highlights of his Shaver output was the 1973 version of the classic sounding heartbreaking song “Good Lord Knows I Tried”, which the songwriter himself would later record. Rodriguez has also recorded songs by and with Nelson – “The Sound in Your Mind” and “Forgiving Her Was Easy” – and Haggard Merle. His 1977 version of Haggard’s “The Immigrant” carried particular weight, as did his contributions to the Highwaymen’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”.
Rodriguez has occasionally incorporated outlaw styles into his own songwriting, such as in “Bossier City Backyard Blues,” an eclectic song upon song that finds him name-checking Tom T. Hall in a similar fashion to his outlaw peers constantly quote each other.
The singer also brought his Texas and outlaw roots to his later work, finding success with his own version of Robert Earl Keen’s new classic, “Corpus Christi Bay.”
One of the most groundbreaking things Johnny Rodriguez has done — besides just existing as a Mexican-American man in country music — was incorporate Spanish-language singing into nearly every album he made. went out. From his debut, the singer will reinterpret the classics of country in a mixture of English and Spanish, insisting without saying it explicitly on the fact that country music was not reserved only for whites, and not only for English speakers.
One of the most memorable examples of this type of reinterpretation is his version of Don Gibson’s iconic track, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, with Rodriguez singing the chorus in Spanish while his background vocalists sing the chorus in Spanish. English. Another was “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” which served as the perfect vocal showcase as well as proof of the bona fides of his country’s history.
Rodriguez explored singing in Spanish further, submitting his version of the huge Eurovision hit “Eres Tú” to country radio in 1977. It was not very well received, but remains one of the best examples of his talents as a genre-independent crooner. . He returned to a bilingual approach with “Cuando Calienta El Sol”, which, although originally written in Spanish, had already been a hit in the English United States. Later in his career he worked with musicians from Tejano on the 1990 Spanish language album Go home.
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