Border Radio Is Celebrated in Multi-Cultural CD

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Once upon a time there was a magical land where everyone got along, where every day was payday, where every night was Saturday night, where all the women were beautiful and all the men handsome, and where you could dance and sing and love all night long to beautiful music.

There actually was such a world. It existed mainly in Radioland, that mystical world where anything is possible. But it also spilled over into a lot of actual roadhouse joints, country dancehalls, rock clubs and all the dance floors where people were locked into the goodtime groove. The rallying point for many years was “border radio.” By that I mean a number of powerful radio stations established just over the U.S. border in Mexico that blanketed North America and parts of the rest of the world. And they spread music far and wide.

Border radio actually came to mean no borders whatsoever. It conveyed a sense of musical and cultural tolerance, of a freewheeling world of limitless possibilities. The great DJ Wolfman Jack lived in that world and brought rock and roll to hundreds of thousands of musically-starved teenagers. Others looking for that huge audience included fraudulent preachers, patent-medicine peddlers and hucksters such as the “goat-gland doctor,” Dr. J.R. Brinkley, who actually performed goat-gland implants on men in his clinic to improve their “male performance.”

These border radio stations were inaugurated by Brinkley’s XER (later to become XERA) in Villa Acuna, Mexico, in 1930, after his radio license in Kansas was revoked. In Kansas, Brinkley had mounted a credible run for the governor’s office, with the powerful assists of his radio station and a country music band promoting him and his gubernatorial campaign. Other X stations, such as XEG and XEAW, followed XERA, mostly owned by U.S. businessmen. These clear-channel “X-stations” were encouraged by the Mexican government after the U.S. and Canada had carved up the authorized long-width broadcast bands for their countries, leaving none for Mexico. The X-stations were initially hosts to many country music programs, because the hucksters knew that the music could sell their products. The Carter Family, which wound their career up with a three-year run on XERA ending in 1941, were typical of musical artists following the money.

The sounds of the stations came to be a polyglot amalgam of populist Texan and Southern culture run amok. Rock and roll, hillbilly and country, R&B, fundamentalist talking-in-tongues fundamentalist preaching, baby chicks for sale by mail order, miracle cures, holy prayer cloths — it was all there for the taking. And that influence coincided with Texas’ own free-wheeling mixture of many cultures. Germans had brought the accordion along with their culture to South Texas and Mexico when they came in as immigrant railroad-building crews. Texas was already full of blues musicians, cowboy singers, jazz musicians, Tex-Mex artists, country troubadours, folk singers, swing bands.

Dancehalls were a staunch Texas tradition, where hardworking ranchers and farmers gathered on Saturday nights to forget the workweek and celebrate. Many small towns consisted of little but a church, a general store, and a dancehall. And all kinds of music provided music to dance to, whether the slow dance, or two-step or square dance.

Some of those kinds of music are celebrated on a new CD that attempts to capture the appeal of the X-stations’ glory days. Heard It on the X (due March 22) by Los Super Seven is the third Texas music supersession flying under that moniker. The 1998 CD Los Super Seven and 2001’s Canto featured shifting lineups of artists and that continues on the new album, which features Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Raul Malo, Delbert McClinton, Ruben Ramos and Rick Trevino. The music pretty much spans the arc of the musical world spawned by and reflected by the border radio era.

Musical standouts are routine here. Personal favorites include the two Doug Sahm songs featured here, Hiatt doing “I’m Not That Kat (Anymore)” and Malo on “The Song of Everything.” Straight-ahead West Texas rock and roll is ably represented by Crowell’s eloquent rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game” and by Ely’s pedal-to-the-metal reading of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance.” McClinton resurrects the greatest slow dance song in Texas history with Sunny and the Sunliners’ “Talk to Me.” Bob Wills and Western Swing are vividly recalled by Lyle Lovett’s version of Wills’ “My Window Faces the South.” Ramos, joined by accordion legend Flaco Jiminez, grinds out a funky version of Z.Z. Top’s paean to border radio, “Heard It on the X.” And Brown, one of the great black artists working his own intensely personal and quirky vein of country music, ends the album with a heartfelt tribute to the great Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, with his workhorse song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”