Rancho Alegre Attempts to Revive Interest in Conjunto and Tejano
Courtesy Rancho Alegre Radio Youtube channel
Seek first the obscure Conjunto music you desire, and ye shall find your refuge in the two-year-old Rancho Alegre radio blog. The blog itself is not a sophisticated or complicated endeavor, yet it is one fiercely bent on reviving the endangered Conjunto and Tejano genres of music. Tejano is an eclectic blend of Mexican folk and American rock fused with a heavy accordion drive, courtesy of early German settlers in Texas; Conjunto is the predecessor to Tejano, and strips away the modern rock sound in favor of a simpler dance-like beat.
Rancho Alegre radio was conceived in the midst of the steep personal challenges of its host and owner, Frank Cuellar. In 2010, at age 39, Cuellar suffered six strokes in quick succession, followed by temporary blindness. In the months after, he was laid off from his job at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, underwent four surgeries for his blindness, and found himself engulfed in depression. With little to occupy his time and mind, Cuellar turned to radio to pass the days as he waited for his sight to return. What he discovered was that radio had become a shockingly homogeneous medium, and Cuellar struggled to find any stations that would play his beloved Tejano music. “I realized that there’s a void out there. Right now there’s almost no Tejano radio,” he told me. “There’s probably twelve stations in the whole U.S. It’s just been abandoned by the big record companies. And when I was ill, I just realized that there’s some crap on the radio.”
It was shortly after this revelation that Cuellar paired with his close friend, web designer Piper LeMoine, to start a blog that sought to revive interest in Conjunto and Tejano by recording and sharing interviews with musicians. The blog also features a playlist which includes nearly three days’ worth of songs.
Cuellar is the Lone Ranger of the radio scene. Shamelessly self-righteous in his pursuit, he has made it his mission to travel around the state to interview Conjunto and Tejano stars before the genres die out. Rancho Alegre radio blog, though, has not always enjoyed as careless an existence as its name implies (“alegre” can be loosely translated from Spanish to mean “cheerful”). In 2010 Rancho Alegre gained the negative attention of Para La Gente, an Austin-based Tejano radio program featured on KTXZ 1560 AM. “We were disappointed in the music programming … we’d be hearing Nashville country on the Tejano station,” LeMoine tells me. “And it was weird and so we were like you know what, let’s write about it, it’s bothering us, let’s put it out there. Maybe somebody will agree. And so that kind of caught [Para La Gente’s] attention …” Though LeMoine underplays the vulgarity with which Cuellar attacked Para La Gente in a series of blog posts in 2010 (saying on July 26 that the program “smells something awful” and on October 24 calling Para La Gente’s programming “bullshit”), the posts created an all-out cyber war fought by the passionate proponents of Tejano revitalization and defenders of Para La Gente radio.
Eventually the two groups and their supporters put aside their differences in favor of the common cause to renew interest in Tejano. “We buried the hatchet and we were like, look, these are just our opinions, it’s our business, whatever,” says LeMoine. Yet the incident was a sharp introduction to the divisive bickering that is so common not just among Tejano fans, but between traditionalist and progressive fans in any musical genre.
On Cuellar and LeMoine’s underfunded island of misfit archivists, getting a good interview on a tight budget with well-known musicians is all in the name of the game. Cuellar describes a recent trip with his wife Gaby and LeMoine to interview famed Tejano musician Agapito Zuniga in Corpus Christi. “We split, and we maybe had $80. I was like well, we’re not eating! We’re just going. Dollar menu only!” Cuellar and LeMoine are hardly typical curators, but Cuellar’s experience in archive work and LeMoine’s tech savvy have made for an ideal pairing.
The program reflects its founder: as Cuellar gains strength – making a slow recovery from his strokes and eye surgeries – so does Rancho Alegre. It is his only child, and more than that, it is the online record of his and his family’s own historical narrative as told through music. Rancho Alegre is not destined to become an ephemeral collection. The radio blog, though young, is growing in popularity: Cuellar and LeMoine organized the premiere Rancho Alegre Conjunto festival in February 2012, which turned out to be wildly more successful than they had originally imagined. “Everyone else was like, you’re bringing those old guys?” Cuellar laughs. “They were like, you’re not gonna have a packed house and I was like, yes I am.” His stubborn determination
paid off: The Austin American-Statesman ran a generous spread of the event, and festival musicians made appearances at Austin landmarks like Antone’s and Waterloo Records.
While endangered due to lack of programming, Conjunto is not insignificant; it continues to resonate with Texans irrespective of ethnicity or language, and stands as an artistic reflection of a generation of Tejanos. Cuellar and LeMoine make no claims for the infant Rancho Alegre’s academic credibility, but there is discussion of eventually sending the Rancho Alegre blog and audio interviews to such esteemed archival collections as the Harry Ransom Center or the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Yet Cuellar is firm: “Money was not ever the reason for any of this … I love it when I hear elderly people, or any people, come up and they say they listen to this [radio program], or they say they listen with their grandmother. I love it. It’s the best pay to me that I could ever get.”
The Rancho Alegre online playlist page proudly announces, “Sit back, crank it up and spend some quality time with your host, Baldomero ‘El Parrandero’ Cuellar. Each show is over an hour of the best Tejano and Conjunto ever recorded. Enjoy!” LeMoine and the Cuellars’ fierce love and enthusiasm for the genres is undeniable – and with any luck, their efforts will help ensure the survival of Conjunto and Tejano in Texas.