Biculturalism is to Carrie Rodriguez as bluebonnets are to Texas — pervasive and rich. The singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas mixes and matches the nimble fiddle of her home state with the ranchero influences of her father’s side of the family.
But the fiddle isn’t the typical Latin musician’s instrument of choice, a fact made clear to Rodriguez at one of her first big bluegrass festivals. “I was playing on stage, and I looked out into the audience and I said, ‘Oh my God. I’m like the only Latina here!’” she says. “One the one hand, I’d be really proud that I’m bringing this music and putting my own spin on it, but I would feel a little bit lost, too, in terms of connecting that to my full history.”
While her full family history stretches all the way south of the border, Rodriguez’s personal history deals with a similar divide growing up. She comes from Austin’s West Side, where the neighborhoods (and the people) are traditionally Anglo. To be biracial was to stick out.
“When I wrote that song, ‘The West Side,’… that was this childhood memory that came bubbling up to the surface, I think because I was working on songs in Spanish thinking about my family and my past,” Rodriguez says. “I remembered coming home from school one day and asking my mom if I could change my last name.”
The song Rodriguez refers to, “The West Side,” is the tenth track off her most recent album, “Lola,” her first exploration of mixed Spanish and English or “Spanglish” lyrics. The song deals with her feelings of alienation in grade school; a blended ethnicity meant both sides of the tracks felt a little off.
“I heard a lot of racist terminology around me, and often said right in front of me, because maybe the kids from my side of the tracks didn’t quite know what I was,” she says. “So I would hear these things and just be completely confused as to where I fit in, and how did this all work?”
There was no real answer at the time, but Rodriguez turned to her music to help calm the confusion. “Music, above anything,” she says, “music was my identity.” Over a decade down the road, the music of her great-aunt, singer Eva Garza – a family legend – struck a similar chord.In her early twenties, Rodriguez listened to Garza’s music for the first time. “I just couldn’t believe that I had DNA in me that came from her,” she says. “I was just floored by that fact: that this was part of me. This was in my family and had so much power and weight to it; it really was remarkable.”
That first listen as a twenty-something in New York sparked a long and intricate relationship with Garza’s orquesta-laced influence. A black-and-white, 1930s photograph of her great-aunt singing into a CBS radio microphone inspired “I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltrán,” “Lola’s” title track.
Lola Beltrán gleamed as one of the brightest ranchera singers of the “Epoca de oro” (golden age) of Mexican music, which she shared with Eva Garza. A full half of the songs on the album cover traditional ranchera pieces like these. “They are so emotional that you can’t help but just sing your heart out when you sing those songs,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve noticed that, listening back, my voice when I’m singing in Spanish tends to be a little bit more raw and has this bigger range than when I’m singing in English.”
It’s not for better or for worse, she says. It’s just different. She speculates that maybe the “extra emotional weight” that expands her Spanish singing comes from the past: her’s, her family’s, and Mexico’s.
“Another thing I’ve found in making this record: I did also find the similarities between country music and ranchera music, which is really kind of the country music of Mexico,” she said. “It’s songs that were written about your home, growing up in small towns, and missing your home, like leaving for other countries or other cities. And that yearning and melancholy is right there in American country music, too.”
It’s in that overlap, in the space where countries coexist, where Rodriguez found her niche. “Lola” is her fifth studio album, “Rolling Stone’s” number 20 on its “40 Best Country Albums of 2016,” and her first bilingual record. It knits together “Tex” and “Mex” without compromising either aspect — it opens the door to a new, Latinx reality.
“That was a real changing point for me: starting to sing in Spanish, and then finding a way to still work in my fiddle and my country leanings into that,” she says, “Now finally I feel like my show really represents me, more than anything.”
Rodriguez and her singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist musical partner and husband, Luke Jacobs, will be performing at Green Lake’s Thrasher Opera House on Saturday, August 12. The pair will be playing a pop, folk and Americana meld; more information is available here.