Cover Story: Boys of Summer

Los Lonely Boys put their brand on Texas radio last year and plan to do the same for the rest of the country in 2004

May 12, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Playing together since their preschool years, brothers JoJo, Henry and Ringo Jr.(L-R opposite page) Garza now are taking Los Lonely Boys to a national audience,thanks in part to blistering live performances (above).

Here's some quick musical trivia for everyone who misses the days when Jeff Probst hosted Rock and Roll Jeopardy on VH1: When was the last time a band with a drummer named Ringo cracked the Top 100 of Billboard's album charts? The answer is ... last week.

The Garza brothers — Henry on guitar, JoJo on bass and the aforementioned drumming Ringo Jr., otherwise known collectively around their native Texas and now a fair part of the rest of the country as Los Lonely Boys — have seen their eponymous debut album hovering in the top half of Billboard's album charts for the better part of the last nine weeks. The sales figures that have placed Los Lonely Boys in that rarefied position will likely spike upward during the band's current touring swing as more people are exposed to their unique brand of "Texican" music, a potent blend of Texas Blues, Tejano rhythm and traditional Mexican Folk with dashes of Country, Rock and R&B thrown in for good measure.

The Boys refer to it as the "musical burrito theory."

"Us three brothers are the tortilla and we fill it with all the knowledge of the greats," JoJo says from the band's bus just prior to a radio show in Tucson, Ariz. "First and foremost is our father (Ringo Garza Sr.), because he taught us everything we knew. We thought he wrote every song he sang. It starts with him and the influences he gave us: Waylon and Willie, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Milsap, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Richie Valens, Fats Domino.

"Growing up into our own, we learned about Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King and Delta and Chicago Blues and all kinds of Rock & Roll like AC/DC and Metallica. Not that we're trying to be a Heavy Metal band, but who knows when a song might pop that out of you?

Roots and reality music are basically what's in the Los Lonely Boys burrito, man."

Taco Bell's got nothing on Los Lonely Boys. With Henry peeling off licks to rival everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Santana and Jojo and Ringo combining for a slippery rhythm section that can shift from Rock thunder to Folk delicacy in less than a heartbeat, this is the brilliant hybrid sound that has the country's music fans running for the border.

Although Los Lonely Boys have suddenly just burst into the national consciousness, the album had a long, slow build. Recorded at friend/fan Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio early last year, Los Lonely Boys was released on New York's Or Records in August 2003 to wide local acclaim within the band's current base of operations, Austin, Tex.

Having already established themselves as a phenomenal live force (they inspired a standing ovation from an audience of 10,000 at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Weekend Picnic last summer), Los Lonely Boys further distinguished themselves by setting the one-day sales total record at Austin's Waterloo Records, arguably one of the biggest independent record stores in the country. By year's end, the album's single, "Heaven," was the No. 1 song at Austin's KGSR-FM and had earned No. 1 AAA Single of the Year as tallied by industry publication Friday Morning Quarterback. And that was just the beginning.

As the album continued to sell an impressive amount for an indie release, Los Lonely Boys maintained their high live standards with a relentless string of local and regional gigs. In January, Epic Records approached Or Records with an expanded distribution deal and Los Lonely Boys were suddenly a prominent national act.

Television appearances on Austin City Limits, The CBS Early Show and late night slots with Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel sent sales figures soaring, ultimately placing the album in the lofty position it now enjoys on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart.

Even as the national buzz began to build, the Boys' local momentum exploded at this year's South By Southwest festival. They began the event by nearly sweeping the annual Austin Music Awards, nabbing five honors that included Album, Band and Song of the Year. It was a stunning achievement, and its significance wasn't lost on the band.

"It was a great feeling, having the support from all the people in Austin that you really don't know or get to meet," JoJo says. "To know that they think about you like that, it's a blessing, brother. We've been working on it our whole lives. People saw real music and real talent and they connected to it, I guess."

Indeed they must have. After two nights of opening for their mentor and colleague Willie Nelson, the Boys threw a free outdoor show on the festival's final night, drawing well over 20,000 attendees in what became the largest SXSW concert in the event's nearly 20-year history. It was a fitting end to an astonishing week for the Boys.

While Los Lonely Boys' enormous success is relatively new, the band has an unbelievably long history. This is the first Los Lonely Boys album officially (like so many, they sold early demo tapes at their gigs), but the band has been around in basically this configuration for well over 15 years.

And long before the Garza brothers — born in tiny Snyder, Tex., and raised in San Angelo — were in a band together, there was another Garza family band called The Falcones, made up of the boys' father and his musical hermanos, a tradition that had been handed down from at least two previous generations of Garzas.

The Falcones made a distinct impression on the Texas audiences of the 1970s and '80s, eventually scoring a Top 10 single on Billboard's Conjunto chart. Ringo Sr. began incorporating his sons into the Falcones' stage presentation at an incredibly early age.

"Henry's the oldest, so he was probably 5," JoJo says. "He could play at 4, and he wrote his first song at 4. It was the same for me — I could play at 4 but it was more like 6 for me. And Ringo was singing and playing the cowbell a little bit. We used to get up and do 'La Bamba' and Boogie Woogie stuff. Man, it was fun."

Fate intervened when one of Ringo Sr.'s brothers died suddenly and the decision was made to dissolve the band rather than continue without their fallen sibling. As his sons grew and became accomplished musicians, Ringo Sr. had the brainstorm of starting a new family group called Los Lonely Boys with himself as lead singer and his sons as his backing band in 1988.

In an effort to realize his lifelong dream of being the first Hispanic Country family group, Ringo Sr. relocated the band to Nashville and they began dividing their time between Nashville and Austin, where they had set up their base to manage their Texas affairs.

The Los Lonely Boys father/sons quartet worked at a furious pace for close to eight years, earning a great deal of respect but little else. In 1996, the group's ex-manager broached the idea of recording the sons without the father, just to see what would happen.

"He said he wanted to get down on tape what we could do by ourselves," JoJo says. "We wound up growing more and more without our father being there, and it's turned into what it is today. It's growing and it's also dealing with the cards that come in life. Change has to happen whether we want it to or not."

The realization that it was time to step aside and let his sons take their own path alone was a hard reality for Ringo Sr., but he accepted it. Los Lonely Boys carried on as a trio.

"Of course it was hard on him," JoJo says of his father's initial reaction to leaving the band. "He'd been working all his life and now it seemed like it was out of reach. It hurt him for a while. But we've always been a strong family with love, so we sat and talked and we told him, 'It's not about not loving you anymore, it's about something else that just has to happen. Like a revelation.' "

After playing any available dive in Nashville, the Boys decided the next big change involved moving back to Texas.

"Nashville gave us the work, but it never gave us what Texas gave us," JoJo says. "Coming back home, that's where we needed to be. We needed to get back to the roots."

With the same unyielding work ethic that marked their time in Nashville, Los Lonely Boys began playing the Southern circuit and making a name for themselves. Three years ago, the band met Freddy Fletcher, Willie Nelson's nephew, who invited them to Pedernales Studio to do some recording. They subsequently found out that Nelson was a fan and was willing to release whatever material resulted from the band's sessions.

Although the sessions turned out well, they were raw and not representative of the way the Boys wanted to present themselves on their first album. Although they used the sessions as demos and ultimately sold copies of the tape at gigs, they held off returning to Pedernales until last year, when they felt ready to create their true debut album.

This time around, Nelson's support translated to a guest spot on the album as he supplied acoustic guitar to the track "La Contestacion."

The two most deeply felt emotions within the Garzas are clearly gratitude and pride. They're grateful to their fans, to their peers and to God for bringing them to this place in their lives and careers.

And they're proud beyond measure at so many different levels — proud of their musical heritage, proud of their Texas culture and proud of the family environment that has allowed them to grow and flourish into a band that can translate that pride and display their influences equally.

"Our family's been doing this for a long time, man," JoJo says with a fierce pride. "Basically, we've been held down being the race that we are, with those sort of hardships that come with this world. So it's a good thing that people are noticing the difference. Nationality, of course, but not just trying to capitalize on that. The human race in general. Being Mexican American, it's a really good feeling knowing that you're stepping out from your family picture and painting a new one."

LOS LONELY BOYS appear Saturday at Pepsi Jammin' on Main, headlining the Main Street Stage at 10:30 p.m. See the following pages for other noteworthy Jammin' national acts and page 45 for highlights from local musicians.