Los Super Seven – Border radio
A year later, in April 1998, Goodman, who had a history with Los Lobos at Vector Management, rounded up Ely, Jimenez, Trevino, Ramos, and Freddy Fender to join Hidalgo, Rosas, and Guzman at Cedar Creek Studios in South Austin, along with the Mariachi Las Campanas from San Antonio and a few other players, to do old songs from the borderlands. Over the course of a week, Lobos horn player Steve Berlin produced an album. A handful of concert dates in New York and Los Angeles and several other cities. plus two appearances on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show, hyped the eponymous album (on RCA), which won the Grammy for Best Mexican-American Music Performance at the 41st Grammy Awards.
But the band went the way of Little Village. Everyone had their own projects to pursue.
The concept was revived in 2001 for a second album, Canto, again under Berlin’s direction (but now on Sony). Though some of the recording was done in Austin, the scope expanded far beyond Texas with a pan-Latin theme that covered early salsa, Cuban son, and other traditional Latin music. New voices and players were brought in, notably Mavericks singer Raul Malo, Afro-Cuban piano stylist Alberto Salas, Peruvian folk star Susana Baca, and Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian songwriter who helped pioneer the tropicalismo movement.
Ely, Fender and Guzman dropped out. “When Dan Goodman showed me what he was doing, I told him it was too far south of the border,” Ely says. “I didn’t know that material.” The album worked as a piece of art — Trevino calls the second time around the most satisfying personally and immediately followed the second Super Seven recording with his own Latin roots album Mi Son, featuring Salas, Malo, Ramos, and Los Lobos, with Berlin producing. But Canto signaled the end of LS7, failing to move enough units to Latino or Anglo buyers to convince a label to pay the freight again.
After giving the idea a rest, Goodman determined if there was to be a third album, the band that didn’t exist needed a change in direction again. He called on the expertise of Rick Clark, the tall crazy guy from Memphis who put together the CD compilations for Oxford American magazine’s annual music issue. Clark was involved all along with the previous Los Super Seven recordings as Goodman’s friend and adviser, but stayed in the background.
“If I had issues [with the first two albums], it might be a song or two, or a compromise I was determined not to let happen again,” Goodman says over the phone from San Miguel de Allende in the central highlands of Mexico, where he keeps a second home. “We were determined to have a song selection that would be universal.”
“He suggested I go gather music with the same kind of sensibility that I applied to Oxford American,” Clark says over the phone from Nashville. “I listened to fine jazz, cowboy hollers, Tex-Mex. I went through thousands of recordings and compiled them on discs. I’d sit down with Dan. We decided from the very beginning to cast the players with the songs.”
That was part of the plan, Goodman says. “We didn’t want artists bringing a song. Rick Clark and I wanted to come up with the songs and bring them to artists. We decided we wanted to make it more of a Texas roadhouse recording while staying in touch with the original concept.”
For a band that really isn’t a band?
“You mean, who are Los Super Seven?” Goodman laughs. “I don’t know how to answer that. It’s a constantly changing concept of an idea we have and who fits into it. Rick and Ruben are the core. This is Ely’s second time around. We didn’t start out with a roster of artists. We started out from the perspective of the songs.
“I guess if you want a real understanding of Los Super Seven, it’s [that] we do what we want to do and we don’t feel beholden to put out a consistent message,” Goodman continues. “In terms of this record, we didn’t start with a border radio concept. Our research took us there. Neither of use was well-versed in the story.”
When Clark finally worked his way to the Zs in his record library, he stumbled “Heard It On The X” while rifling through ZZ Top’s catalog. The lyrics got his attention. “The song was a tribute to border radio. It sort of made sense. It certainly deserved being a candidate for the album because it was a shared experience to just about anyone involved with this project.”
The songs already selected fit neatly with the concept. Music broadcast on the stations from south of the border was all over the place — Mexican, rock ‘n’ roll, dirty blues, hillbilly — just like this album cobbled together by two guys who are as much enthusiasts as dealmakers. “Border radio was pre-music director, pre-consultant, freeform radio,” Clark bubbles excitedly. “It was celebrating the spirit of great renegadism. It’s like it was coming from another world.”
The emphasis on the song first is a traditional Nashville approach to country hitmaking. And it’s a Nashville thing to put a bunch of players in the studio and see what happens, especially when their managers know each other. But that method had never been applied to an album that tries to capture Texas on a CD.
Ties were severed with Berlin and Los Lobos. To produce, Goodman and Clark hired Charlie Sexton, the Austin native son who has matured into the city’s musical MVP, and he knew all the players. Calexico, the Tucson, Arizona, band with definite Tex-Mex tendencies and the versatility to front mariachis as well as doing the earthiest cover of “Alone Again Or” by Arthur Lee & Love since, well, Arthur Lee & Love, would be the core band.
Two and a half years into the Goodman and Clark expedition, in September 2004, Calexico and Sexton holed up in a studio built into a luxury home high above Lake Austin, northwest of the city, during the Austin City Limits music festival, and got down to bidness.
Los Super Seven might initially have struck some as an unoriginal means of copping some star shine from the Texas Tornados while boosting the career of Rick Trevino and getting Los Lobos on board the Tex-Mex love train. It didn’t help that the name sounded more appropriate for a Laredo convenience store than a band. But while there’s not a Los Super Seven per se — never has been and probably never will be — this lineup is about as eclectic as Tex, or Tex-Mex, gets: Calexico, in the place of Los Lobos, surrounded by LS7 vets Trevino, Fender, Jimenez, Ramos and Ely; some heavy Austin blues cats including Denny Freeman, the guitarist and pianist who mentored Stevie Ray Vaughan; the West Side Horns from San Antonio; Flaco’s bajo sexto rhythm guitarist Max Baca; Calexico’s pals Mariachi de la Luz. Plus a parade of guest vocalists including Delbert McClinton, Rodney Crowell, Raul Malo, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Gatemouth Brown, all covering a mess of renegade sounds emanating from the Lone Star state. Which means a little bit of everything.