Rocking the Valley


A version of this story ran in the March 2012 issue.

Port Arthur has Janis Joplin. Lubbock has Buddy Holly. And the rock-and-roll legacies of Dallas, Houston and Austin are well established. There are few places in Texas where rock music hasn’t been viable, except in the Rio Grande Valley—four hours from San Antonio and considered the road to nowhere by touring rockers.

Its isolation partly explains why the region, compared to the rest of Texas, has contributed little to the genre. The other reason is culture, says Donner Maldonado of Pharr, part of the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metropolitan area across the border from Reynosa, Mexico. “People who are interested in rock music are coming out of Tejano,” he says.

Tejano—and its northern Mexican counterpart Norteño—looms large over the Valley. Where Austin has Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Valley has Esteban Jordan (dubbed “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” by musicians) and Freddy Fender. The music is inescapable. Rock fans like Maldonado grew up with Tejano in the air at barbecues and at work.

Maldonado, 34, played in rock bands in the Valley for years before taking his chances in the rock-friendlier environs of Austin. The deck can seem stacked against Valley rockers. If you want to succeed as a musician, you have to move away. If you choose to stick around, you might as well become an electrician, because the music scene isn’t conducive to achieving rock-and-roll dreams.

But Charlie Vela, a musician who also hails from the Valley, didn’t move away or become an electrician. Instead, the 28-year-old opened a studio in the Valley for recording rock music. Vela, who lives in Edinburg, plans to prove that the Valley can be a home for indie-rock and Tejano, and perhaps one day create its own rock legends.

charlievelacaptionMaldonado started playing in his first bands in the late ’90s at rented halls like Edinburg’s Trenton Point or, occasionally, small, empty clubs where owners let the bands play for free on weeknights. At one point, he was a singer for a rock group called Big 33. After that band broke up in 2000, Maldonado started the short-lived alternative group Charlie Daniels Death Wish. Eventually, he moved to Austin where he joined the punk-rock band The Malcontent Party, also comprising Valley refugees.

In the Valley, he says, the only way to get a booking was to be a cover band, playing authentic-sounding renditions of popular hits and classic songs. If you wanted to play original music, your options were to perform in someone’s backyard or to rent the VFW hall on Business Highway 83 (“old 83,” to locals) in McAllen. Clubs that sell alcohol would keep out the one group that was hungry for original rock music: teenagers.

Maldonado says the club owners and over-21 audiences preferred covers because people who were new to rock music wanted something familiar. “Hearing ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ is better than something nobody knows,” he says. “Youth culture doesn’t prevail in the Valley.” Maldonado attributes that partly to the area’s proximity to Mexico. “You could party in Mexico from the time you’re 14. By the time you’re 22, you’re tired of going out drinking.”

Without a club scene to nurture developing bands, musicians and fans in the Valley have been forced to become promoters in a region with the nation’s highest poverty rate. For young people with no institutional support, just coming up with cash to present a concert—renting the venue, hiring a sound engineer, advertising and paying the bands—is a challenge.

George Dean started Furious George Productions in 2003 to promote concerts in the McAllen area. He rented Edinburg’s Trenton Point and McAllen’s VFW hall regularly for shows by local bands and the occasional young touring act. Sometimes he managed to break even. “A lot of the time, the money that I’d use to pay the bands would come directly from the door at the show,” Dean says. “People would pay to get in, and I would immediately give that money to the bands. I was always sweating: ‘Is the show going to go well or not? Am I going to lose the money that I paid for sound? Am I going to recoup the money that I paid for fliers?’”

Promoters with more resources have long been interested in bringing more established touring bands to the region. Metallica played at McAllen’s Villa Real Convention Center in 1986, and ’90s rock titans Creed stopped in the Valley on their 1999 world tour, at the height of the band’s popularity. But even such can’t-miss events rarely translated into a serious commitment to develop the culture of rock music in the Valley.

“When Quiet Riot came down in ’93, they booked a cover band to open for them,” Maldonado says, laughing. “That wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”

The fact that so many of his fellow musicians have moved away or given up is a mixed blessing, Vela says. “The people who are left are the ones who are more committed. It’s survival of the fittest—the Darwinian evolution of bands in a region,” he says. “The people who practiced more, who didn’t get into things that distracted them, stuck around.”

Weslaco is Vela’s hometown, about 15 miles east of McAllen on Highway 83. Like the rest of the Valley, it’s dotted with new strip malls, reflecting the region’s retail development. Vela got his first taste of success in the early 2000s as the drummer for Weslaco-based indie-rock band The December Drive. The group emerged from the teenage punk-rock scene that played at venues like Trenton Point in the late ’90s, and featured Vela and four friends, all of whom were in high school when the band was formed. Vela had a strong interest in recording and music engineering and began producing the songs that would make up the band’s 2001 debut CD, Hands Like Guns and Crashing Sounds. Digital delivery was becoming a force in the music industry, and the band’s “This Side You’ve Never Seen” became an online hit. They signed a deal with the small, independent, California-based label American Jealousy, and became among the first Valley bands to tour the country.

“It was the summer right after we all graduated high school,” Vela says. “It was incredibly exciting. We put up some songs on, and they got 50 to 60,000 downloads. We had no idea who was downloading them.”

The December Drive continued recording and touring through the 2000s before finally calling it quits in 2008. Vela had continued studying music production, including an apprenticeship at Black Lodge Studios in Kansas, where he engineered records for some of indie rock’s most successful bands. He decided to focus on opening his own studio in Edinburg.

“I’ve had opportunities to move other places, but I always felt like it would be better to be at the ground floor of something and help develop it,” he says. “Austin, Portland, even Kansas—they’re all dominated by people who did that 10 years before us. It hasn’t happened [in the Valley] yet. But it’s going to.”

Nothing is going to erase the 300-plus miles between McAllen and Houston, or McAllen and Austin, but the Internet has given rock bands from the Valley access to fans around the world. As a music writer, I’ve pitched stories on McAllen bands The Young Maths and Dignan, both of whom recorded with Vela, to MTV and The Onion A.V. Club and been surprised to receive immediate interest. Promoters have developed stronger hooks to convince booking agents to send bands to the area.

“They’re realizing that it’s a way to get to the Mexico market without having to actually cross [the border],” Vela says. “People will come up [from Mexico] for a show and the band doesn’t have to deal with customs, immigration, renting equipment or hiring somebody to protect you.”

Vela’s presence also provides bands with an opportunity they lacked a few years ago: the chance to record their music properly. “When I started recording, there was nowhere to record rock music,” he says. “There were three recording studios, and they were all Tejano studios. I was trying to figure out where my band was going to record, and I decided I had to learn how to do it.”

Most of the Valley’s rock bands have logged time in Vela’s studio. Having access to a producer with Vela’s training changes the game for the region. Artists no longer have to cram a full recording session into a single weekend in Austin or Dallas. And according to Roberto Godinez of The Young Maths, access to the studio is having an impact in the Valley. “It starts a gradual process of raising the level of professionalism within the scene,” he says. “Bands go in to record with him and start thinking, ‘Okay, maybe we should run some extra practice sessions before we go in.’” The professionalism explains why music from the Valley is spreading beyond the region in ways that it hasn’t before.

Last fall, there were three Valley bands touring different parts of the country at the same time: Dignan, The Young Maths and McAllen newcomers Sick/Sea. Audrey Scott, who sings and plays guitar in Sick/Sea alongside her brother Cameron and Miguel Morales, has a different viewpoint from Maldonado, Dean and Vela. The 23-year-old songwriter is young enough to see the region’s potential without the weight of its frustrating past. When Scott was coming of age, The December Drive was touring. From her perspective, things have already changed.

“Things are happening,” Scott says. “We’re giving hope to the scene. … It’s amazing to me that we’re touring. I would always talk the Valley up [on tour], and more bands will be playing down here as they find out about it.”

On tour, Scott makes sure people know exactly where she’s from. “We drew a little picture of Texas on our merchandise booth,” she says. “And we put a little dot at the very bottom. ‘That’s where we’re from,’ we tell people.”

Dan Solomon lives in Austin. His work has appeared in The Onion A.V. Club, Spin, and Parade.