Raul Malo owns one of the most prodigious voices in country music history. He aligns well with Patsy Cline and Ray Price among the genre’s finest.
Experience the masterful Malo as he helms The Mavericks on Saturday up close at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee. It’s his and their first stop in Bristol. On the road in acknowledgement of the band’s 30th year since formation, Malo spoke for more than an hour Monday about his beloved band and love of singing.
“I am from a Cuban family,” said Malo, by phone from his home in Nashville. “My dad loved Johnny Cash. I remember riding around in Miami with my dad in his big Buick, listening to Freddy Fender and Marty Robbins on 8-tracks. Country music was part of the soundtrack to my childhood.”
Malo, 53, formed The Mavericks in Miami in 1989. Tooled in part on the songs of Harlan Howard and flavors of Latin America and Buck Owens, The Mavericks initially delivered country music throughout Florida’s buzzing hive of alternative rock nightclubs.
“The first thing that I love about country music is the lyrics, the melodies,” Malo said. “The emotion through the music, I love how it makes me feel. When I put on a Ray Price record or a Patsy Cline record, I can see the sawdust on the floor. It takes me to a whole other world.”
Malo’s entry into country music first came with the records he heard. Then came the voice, his ticket to stardom and widespread acclaim as the finest country voice of the past 30 years.
MCA Nashville signed The Mavericks to a record deal in 1989. Several records in, they struck million-selling success with 1994’s album, “What A Crying Shame.” Despite strong album and ticket sales, so-called country radio never really embraced them.
“We’ve had one of those strange careers,” Malo said. “We have this weird kind of fame. Not everybody knows us, but those who do love us.”
The Mavericks’ initial run carried them into 2004. Hits included singles the cool-drenched “Here Comes the Rain” and a steel guitar-driven “There Goes My Heart.” After nearly a decade apart, The Mavericks regrouped in 2012 with a new album, “In Time.”
“I’d been doing this solo stuff, and it was really fun, really nourishing,” Malo said. “I felt like I was going to the university of music. But I was missing playing in a kick-ass band.”
Now, Malo said that he’s looking forward to The Mavericks show in Bristol perhaps in ways most would not realize. For one, he has familial roots in the region.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Boone, North Carolina,” Malo said. “My mother-in-law, I think, is from Abingdon. I spent a lot of summers there (in the area) as a young man.”
Wait. It gets better.
“I remember going to a little store in Mountain City where they had a picking parlor,” he said. “Here I was, a little Cuban kid. They couldn’t even pronounce my name. Then I sang Hank Williams songs for them, and they loved it. After that, they tried and learned to pronounce my name. They were such sweet people.”
Bristol, don’t be surprised if you happen to see Malo and The Mavericks strolling around town Saturday afternoon. Several days ago, while in Detroit, they visited the Motown Museum.
“That night, I spontaneously sang ‘My Girl,’” Malo said. “I said, ‘We’ve never played it before. We never rehearsed it before.’ We started, the audience sang along. We can all come together. That’s what I love about music.”
He adores Jimmie Rodgers’ music. As is well-known, Rodgers and The Carter Family ignited what’s been termed the big bang of country music when they made their first records on State Street in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927.
“I’ve always wanted a reason to do a Jimmie Rodgers song, the Singing Brakeman,” Malo said.
Frankly, most folks just may feel compelled to sing to themselves all day long if they could sing like Raul Malo. His gift owns a nod to Roy Orbison’s breadth, Hank Williams’ soul, Ray Price’s dramatic flair and Ray Charles’ wide open incorporation of styles.
“There is something cathartic and therapeutic about singing,” Malo said. “I highly recommend it. Even if you can’t sing well, just sing. It’s what I love to do more than anything else in the world.”
If Hank Williams was country music’s god, then Raul Malo stands as country music’s Moses. His singing could part a river.
“Music uplifts, it inspires, it comforts, it relaxes me,” Malo said. “It tugs at my heartstrings. That’s what it does for me like nothing else does.”