In 2017, after spending a decade working in law enforcement in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Frank Ray (real name: Francisco Gomez) knew it was time to give his first love–singing and performing country music–a real shot.
“I didn’t go to college or anything like that. I worked a bunch of different odd jobs and eventually found myself in the law enforcement scene working in Deming, New Mexico at a detention center,” he tells CMT. “I did that for about 11 months and then later applied for the Las Cruces Police Academy. You blink and 10 years has passed. But I kept coming back to music as an outlet and got serious about writing songs.”
Raised in Texas and New Mexico, Ray grew up soaking in the sounds of classic country music, alongside sleeker pop fare from Boyz II Men, traditional ranchera music and Tejano artists including Selena. Many of those influences can be felt within his own music, including “Streetlights,” Ray’s first major label single for BBR Music Group, home to artists including Jason Aldean, Jimmie Allen, and Blanco Brown.
Ray, along with Frank Rogers and Bobby Hamrick, co-wrote “Streetlights,” an intoxicating infusion of country with Latin percussion and melodies. “Streetlights” is also Ray’s first bilingual song, as he repeats the final line of the chorus in Spanish, blending his country music roots with his Latin heritage.
“We wrapped up writing a different song early,” Ray recalls of penning “Streetlights.” “We were talking about the Latin vibe, then we started strumming that little groove. I said, ‘This is what we need to do if we’re going to do it right.’ Bobby worked on the guitar line when we demoed it, and then when we went into the studio to record it, Derek Wells and Bryan Sutton worked on the acoustic and electric guitar parts, with Steve Patrick on trumpets.
“It’s just authentic,” Ray adds, “and just perfect for us to, in a sense, really kick down the door as my introduction into mainstream country music.”
During his time working in law enforcement, Ray had continued performing and writing songs on the side. He co-wrote every song on his 2017 independent EP A Different Kind of Country, including the title track, which delves into the stories of hard-working, undocumented Latinos, but also points to the similarities between Latino audiences and country music audiences. He had two songs, including “The Drive,” reach No. 1 on the Texas music charts and more offers for music performances began to pour in. Ray attempted to juggle both gigs, but ultimately quit his policing job in 2017 to pursue music full time.
“That was the defining point,” he says. “When we realized the demand for us to play these songs live started to grow, it got to be too much to try to balance the two. I was at a crossroads in my life and, fortunately, for the way things panned out, I picked the right road, so it was good.”
He and his manager Oscar Chavira and the two set their sights on finding success in Nashville.
“We knew if we came here, we wanted to come under the right circumstances–getting a booking agency, a publishing deal and ultimately a record deal. I wasn’t really doing a lot of the Red Dirt kind of music, and we knew we wanted to be in Nashville. It seemed like an overwhelming task, but it was a goal and we were able to reach that within three years. Luckily, we recorded a song that was part of [the late hit songwriter] Andrew Dorff’s catalog, called ‘Tequila Mockingbird.’”
“Tequila Mockingbird” caught the ear of then-Spotify executive John Marks, who added the song to Spotify’s New Boots playlist, which soon prompted a call from BBR Music Group execs. Around the same time, he also inked a deal with the Frank Rogers-led publishing company Spirit Music Nashville.
With “Streetlights,” Ray hopes to build upon the work of Latino artists who have come before him.
In 1972, Johnny Rodriguez released his first Billboard chart hit with “Pass Me By,” and followed with six (non-consecutive) chart-topping hits, including “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me)”–which Rodriguez penned with Tom T. Hall–and his self-penned “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico.” With these hits, he became the first mainstream country music star with Hispanic roots.
Three years later, Freddy Fender would enter the charts with “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” which contained lyrics sung partially in Spanish. The song earned Single of the Year honors from the Country Music Association. He followed with “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Secret Love,” and “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” among other hits. In the 1980s, Latin music icon Julio Iglesias earned a pair of country chart hits with collaborations with Willie Nelson, including the CMA Award-winning “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” as well as “Spanish Eyes.” Linda Ronstadt, who is also of Mexican heritage, is known for several country hits such as 1975’s “When Will I Be Loved” and “Love Is A Rose,” also paid tribute to her heritage with the album Canciones de Mi Padre, a project of traditional Mariachi music.
It’s been more than two decades since Hispanic artist Rick Trevino earned country hits such as “Running Out of Reasons To Run” and “Learning As You Go” in the mid-1990s. Bands such as Grammy winners The Mavericks have melded an array of influences, including Tex Mex and country, with The Mavericks earning the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year honor in 1995 and 1996. More recently, The Last Bandoleros, which includes Diego and Emilio Navaira IV, sons of the late Tejano musician, Emilio Navaira, inked a deal with Warner Music Nashville in 2016 and released a series of singles.
Scotty McCreery, who has notched several country radio chart-toppers such as “In Between” since his American Idol win in 2011, is of Puerto Rican heritage. Ray is among a new crop of newcomers with Hispanic roots seeking success in the country space, alongside artists including “Something We Can Dance To” singer Sammy Arriaga, The Texicana Mamas, and recently-wed duo Kat & Alex.
Of course, several country artists have incorporated Spanish lyrics and Latin sounds into their own music over the years. Texas native George Strait recorded his first song entirely in Spanish when he included “El Rey,” a classic from Vicente Fernández, on his 2009 album Twang. Trio Midland, which formed in Texas, teamed with Jay De La Cueva for a Spanish version of their hit “Drinkin’ Problem.” “Vaquero,” the title track to Texas native Aaron Watson’s 2017 album, pays homage to the deep-seated connections in Latin and American cowboy culture. Oklahoma native Carrie Underwood teamed with Latin artist David Bisbal for the bilingual collaboration “Tears of Gold” earlier this year, while in 2018, Kane Brown teamed with Becky G for a Spanish remix of “Lost in the Middle of Nowhere.” To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his 1992 smash hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus invited quintet Caballo Dorado for a bilingual collaboration of the song. The group had popularized their own Spanish rendition of the song soon after it became a smash in the United States. Conversely. Becky G and Chiquis Rivera (daughter of late banda/mariachi singer Jenni Rivera) showcased a love for the Dolly Parton country classic “Jolene,” releasing a cumbia version of the song. Other country artists such as Blaine Larsen and Pam Tillis have also found radio success with songs that include Spanish lyrics, such as Larsen’s “I Don’t Know What She Said,” or Tillis’ “Mi Vida Loca.”
Research from a few years ago also shows a surging Hispanic audience for country music.
In 2016, Inside Radio reported on research from the Country Music Association, which showed that seven out of 10 Hispanics listen to country music regularly, with approximately one-third listening daily. The CMA research showed that from 2006 through 2016, country music had a 25% increase in hispanic listeners. 39% of Hispanic Millennials (ages 18-34) included in the study noted they were fans of country music, as did 27% of Hispanics who are part of Generation X (ages 34-54).
“A connection’s always been there,” Ray tells CMT. “Now, there’s a Hispanic face that they can put to the music and there’s an authenticity factor that resonates with people because it doesn’t come off as a ploy of any sort. It’s just this guy knows how … he knows my lifestyle, he knows my culture, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to those kinds of themes. There’s a whole [Latino] market out there for country music and that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here. When George Strait included ’El Rey’ on the Twang record…that goes to speak about how close the relationship is between country music and Mexican music. The American cowboy and the Mexican vaquero are one and the same and so, again, all I am is just a different conduit for that.”
Ray plans to follow “Streetlights” with a four-song EP later this year. “We got the country stuff, the Latin stuff, the more sultry pop stuff, too and then this straight down the middle country ballad,” he says. A song called “We Got ‘Em” pulls from the imagery of Ray’s Texas and New Mexico roots, while Ray describes another song, “Late,” as having a lyrical vibe similar to Brad Paisley’s “Waitin’ on a Woman.” He hopes his career will help serve as an inspiration for Latino country artists who also aspire to find success in Nashville.
“I think it’s important for the genre and it’s important for our culture. I think it opens up the door for the multitude of Hispanic artists that exist in this world and all that are trying to come up in country music. That’s really the ultimate goal, not just to have some great success in the genre, but just to be able to inspire other artists that are coming up. As long as you surround yourself with the right people with the same ambition and share the same vision, the sky’s the limit. You can do anything you want to do.”