The Santa Cruz River Band comes from Tucson, one of the cities in the southern tier of states where deep connections with Mexico long predate the current immigration controversy. It's been said that the city's economy stretches 1,000 miles into Mexico, and so does its music. Linda Ronstadt is the most famous representative of Tucson's Mexican-American musical culture, and her family, past and present, includes several musical tradition bearers. Among them is her brother Michael J. Ronstadt, one of the trio that make up the Santa Cruz River Band.
In concert and on the first two of its three albums, the group has mixed songs from both sides of the border easily enough that you temporarily forget it's there. The three musicians sing in English, Spanish, and, on occasion, Arizona's Native American languages. Their original songs and covers are sometimes set in the borderlands: they perform, for example, David Olney's chilling "Women across the River," in which a narrator looks across the border at farm workers who "are as gentle as the dew upon the ground" but "can kill you with their eyes." But they effortlessly weave in songs from other traditions, like John Prine's "Paradise." Their prime criterion seems to be the presence of a good story with resonances beyond itself.
The new Santa Cruz River Band release is The Mexican Album. It's entirely in Spanish, and the material consists mostly of Mexican traditional songs. But in the feel of its straightforward vocals and trio harmonies, elegantly emotional and never over the top, it's not a major departure from the trio's earlier releases. Several of the songs ("La Golondrina," "El Sinaloense") are ones that you may have heard in the background in Mexican restaurants, and it's a joy to hear them without the stylized exaggeration with which they've been overlaid both in Mexican pop traditions and in the American imagination — the band members say that they just recalled songs they heard at campfires and family gatherings when they were younger, and they sing them naturally. The meanings of the words should yield easily to some high school Spanish or a bit of explanation — they contain a lot of repetition, and their themes of love and of exile go straight to the heart.
The Santa Cruz River Band comes to the Ark — among the few clubs in the state, aside from Latin dance halls, that regularly present the music of Latin America — on Wednesday, October 31.
[Review published October 2007]