In recent years, mainstream country has addressed diversity with an influx of Black artists — including Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Blanco Brown and Jimmie Allen — and a 2020 increase in airplay for female acts. Although the Hispanic population in the United States is growing, the closest modern country has come to a Latinx hitmaker is Scotty McCreery, who has a grandfather of Puerto Rican descent. And it has been over 20 years since a Hispanic artist — Rick Trevino, a Texan-born singer with Mexican roots — scored a top 10 country single.
But new duo Kat & Alex hope to end that drought. After appearing in ABC’s American Idol this spring, Kat Luna and Alex Garrido made some fast connections once they moved from Miami to Nashville. They signed with The Artist Management Group, established by Rob Beckham and Bill Simmons, in June and recently picked up a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Nashville.
Producer-engineer Brad Hill (Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne) helmed a handful of commercial-sounding pop-country recordings that are being shopped around Music Row. “How Many Times,” which showcases Garrido’s smooth tenor and Luna’s Kelly Clarkson-like power, exists in both a standard English version and an alternate Spanglish take.
“Kat and I are very, very proud of our heritage,” says Garrido, who grew up in northern Georgia, the son of Puerto Rican parents. Cuban-American Luna was born and raised in Miami. “We absolutely, definitely want to let people know where we’re from and really embrace that.”
Country as a genre has struggled to embrace Latinx culture in recent years, though the two have a fairly symbiotic relationship in Texas. Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez simultaneously represented Hispanic culture in the 1970s, Julio Iglesias joined Willie Nelson on the multiplatinum 1984 crossover “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and ’90s country made room for Trevino and The Mavericks, who twice won the Country Music Association’s vocal group of the year award. Supergroups The Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven succeeded without much mainstream attention, and such acts as Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Brooks & Dunn and Dwight Yoakam incorporated Latinx flavors into numerous hits.
A 2016 CMA study indicated Hispanic country listenership had expanded 25% in a six-year period, and with numerous video and streaming platforms stretching around the globe, this would seem an ideal time for the country business to reach out to the Latinx market.
“They’re already listening to country music because the values — you know: God, family — it’s the same as country music,” says Stephanie Urbina Jones, who became the first artist to bring mariachi to the Grand Ole Opry in 2018. “They’re already listening. They just don’t have their own Selena or icon to wrap their hearts around. But hopefully, that’s coming.”
There’s definitely activity in the Latin country subgenre. Urbina Jones teamed with fellow Tejana artists Tish Hinojosa and Patricia Vonne to form The Texicana Mamas, who released their self-titled debut album on Aug. 21. The Mavericks are celebrating 30 years since their inception with their first Spanish-language album, En Espanol, also issued Aug. 21. Cuban-American Sammy Arriaga released a video on Oct. 22 for his multigenre single “Something We Can Dance To,” featuring pop singer Charlotte Sands and hip-hop act Ollie Joseph. Additionally, Warner Music Nashville’s The Last Bandoleros have fashioned an inventive version of “Feliz Navidad” for the upcoming Christmas season.
The Bandoleros faced some pushback with their first country single, the harmony-rich “Where Do You Go,” from a smattering of programmers who were put off by the presence of Tejano-flavored accordion. But they remain undeterred as they continue to develop new songs.
“It’s been a little tricky, to be honest,” says group member Jerry Fuentes. “You can’t just show up at the party in the weirdest outfit and expect everybody to like you. You have to play the game a little bit, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose your identity.”
The Mavericks faced that same issue in the ’90s; even though the Nashville industry loved them, they never surpassed No. 13 on Country Airplay. Lead singer Raul Malo is optimistic that country will eventually allow Latinx sounds within its border.
“Things are starting to cross-pollinate, just because that’s what happens naturally,” he says. “There’s more of us now. There’s more people, more influences — no matter how hard some might try to thwart it, it’s there. Whoever thinks that we don’t live in an integrated society and integrated world is really blind, I think, to the reality. The fact that music is starting to reflect that is a beautiful thing.”
Mavericks trumpet player Lorenzo Molina Ruiz and another friend were assaulted in a Nashville-area sports bar on Oct. 4 for speaking Spanish. Malo considers the incident an aberration — “Nashville has never felt that way about Latinos,” he says.
Still, anti-immigrant tensions have been inflamed over the past four years following the election of a president who made building a wall on the Mexican border part of his platform. That has created some damage in the Latinx community.
“I think that for a young Mexican-American, it’s hard to feel pride about who you are when those messages are coming down,” says Urbina Jones. “They influence our minds; they influence our heart. And that’s why music is so very, very important because it tells stories and it peppers our culture with those stories that continue to evolve our understanding of who we are.”
The Latin market is hardly limited to the United States. Kat & Alex have been in touch via social media with fans from Canada to India — “We don’t call them fans. We call them family,” says Luna — and that might provide extra incentive for Music Row to develop a Hispanic country artist. The genre is, after all, making greater international inroads than ever.
Still, the career starts at home. Malo has no doubt that American country listeners would open their arms to a Hispanic act that moved them.
“The right song transcends all,” he says. “If it’s the right song, the right sentiment, a real singer, a real band, it’ll work.”
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.