El Paso Music Hall of Fame Part II
El Paso Scene looks at the area’s rising music stars of the 21st Century
By Lisa Kay Tate
In September of 2001, El Paso Scene asked readers and friends who they would nominate for the inaugural (and hypothetical) class of the El Paso Music Hall of Fame, celebrating some of the area’s most successful, most prolific or most respected musical performers.
The list spanned several decades of music and several genres with Art Lewis, Bobby Fuller Four and Long John Hunter leading the pack. There were ranchera and Latin music representatives such as the Lechuga Family and Juan “Juanito” Irigoyen, as well as country performers Wayne Johnston, Mike Oatman, and folk mainstays Ray “Zoomer” Roberts and Applejack.
In the rock and punk worlds, were “newcomers” At the Drive-In, as well as The Texicans, and The Rhythm Pigs. Jazz greats included Curt Warren, Billy Townes, and Gerald Hunter, and classical music influencers were Abraham Chavez and Bruce Nehring. At least 20 others were nominated as well, from musical comedy act Springfire to disc jockey Steve Crosno.
Today, the music scene is still strong in El Paso, with many local talents making the rounds at festival and main stage events such as ’70s throwback group Fungi Mungle, jazz artist Sha’Vonne and salsa band Azucar.
El Paso Scene decided that it was time for another induction ceremony, this time featuring current musicians getting their share of attention well beyond the El Paso and Southern New Mexico area.
These new inductees are just as diverse, from alternative rock to country, hip-hop to classical and bluegrass to heavy metal. In no particular order, are El Paso Scene’s recommendations for just a few of those worthy of the “El Paso Music Hall of Fame: The Next Generation.”
Classical Music: Zuill Bailey
An accomplished cellist who had performed with some of the world’s most prominent orchestras, Zuill Bailey had already established celebrity status in the classical music world before coming to El Paso. Now in his 17th season as Artistic Director of El Paso Pro-Musica, Bailey has continued to grow in renown.
In 2017, Bailey won the Best Classical Instrumental Solo Grammy for his live recording of “Tales of Hemingway,” by composer Michael Daugherty. The CD itself, recorded with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, also won Grammys for Best Classical Composition” and Best Classical Compendium.
Bailey’s new title of “Grammy Award Winning Cellist” not only speaks well of his own musical achievements, but also draws attention to the El Paso-based performing arts and educational endeavors to which he’s attached.
In addition to his own status as a musician, Bailey has also helped bring attention to El Paso by bringing artists from all over the world into the community.
Pro-Musica’s Executive Director Felipa Solis noted that Bailey has initiated community collaborations with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra and the El Paso Museum of Art, and has made educational enrichment and community engagement integral elements of El Paso Pro-Musica. Solis said he works to bring the “finest musical artists in the world to the region” who perform in classrooms, hospitals, and senior centers, and also conduct master classes at UTEP through the new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship to guide students into careers in the Arts in the 21st Century.
“Zuill Bailey has been extremely innovative in working to bring the community together to make music accessible to all,” Solis said. “Music is used to educate, inspire as well as to soothe and heal at area hospitals. His roster of artists is incredible each year and his commitment to El Paso is endless. He has become a true El Paso musical treasure.”
Urban, R&B: Khalid
Khalid may not have grown up in El Paso, but he represents the city well.
He was born Khalid Donnel Robinson in Fort Stewart, Ga., and moved often due to his mother’s military career. He didn’t arrive in El Paso until his junior year in high school, where he met some of his closest friends. Here he began really exploring his music, posting some early works on SoundCloud with positive response from listeners. He even made it to No. 2 on Billboard’s “Twitter Emerging Artists” charts.
The video for his single “Location,” featured on his debut album, “American Teen,” is filmed entirely in El Paso and has received more than 304 million views on YouTube.
He was nominated for five Grammys for the album, which peaked at No. 4 on the Top 200 Charts. He also won Top New Artist at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards and Best New Artist at 2017’s MTV Video Music Awards.
The album itself was inspired by the friendship he discovered when he moved to El Paso as a teenager, according to the profile on him by Vevo LIFT.
“There’s so much love in El Paso, and I think that really shines through,” he said in “Becoming Khalid,” a Vevo LIFT special about his music, “All these friends that I have, they all show me that they love me, and we all show each other that we appreciate each other.”
In the video, Khalid talked about how much positive response he got to his first album, which was released when his was just 19.
“In the span of a couple of hours, my album was No. 1 on the R&B Apple Music Charts, which is crazy, because it’s my debut album,” he said.
In 2017, Khalid performed at Neon Desert Music Festival, sharing the bill with such diverse names as Foster the People and Hardwell.
In the past two years, Khalid’s music has popped up everywhere. He made his first television appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. His song “Angels’ was featured on the television drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” His collaboration with rapper Swae Lee was featured in the Marvel megahit “Black Panther,” with the song reaching 63 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in February of this year. His single “Love Lies” with Normani was featured on the soundtrack of the film “Love, Simon,” and he has collaborated with other artists ranging from Lorde to Shawn Mendes.
His “Location Tour” sold out everywhere, including Tricky Falls in 2017. His latest “915 Hometown Show” is filling up UTEP’s Don Haskins Center for a two–night event Sept. 14-15.
Country: Joe Barron Band
Singer-songwriter Joe Barron, now a rising star in the Nashville music scene, grew up in El Paso loving his parents’ George Straight records, and has since developed a passion for Texas Country music. His band was formed in 2011, and they have already shared the stage with acts like Parmalee, Josh Abbott Band, Dwight Yoakam, Kenny Rogers, Josh Grider, Dirty River Boys and John Anderson, among others.
Barron, who was heavily involved in athletics in high school and early college, begin learning the guitar and singing in high school after a bull-riding injury. Within two years, he had formed a full band. Barron became popular on the Texas music scene, and eventually made his way to Nashville where he landed spots at respected Nashville venues like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row.
In 2016, his hometown performance with Tyler Farr as part of the Fort Bliss “Let Freedom Sing” series drew a crowd of more than 10,000. Locally, his recognition included being named “Best Band” and “Best Musician” in recent polls from “The City Magazine” and “El Paso Times’ Best of the Border.
Rick Dow, a DJ for Whiskey Dick’s nightclub in El Paso, is quoted in Barron’s bio praising his and his band’s sound.
“The Joe Barron Band is for real,” Dow said. “Been waiting a long time for a local country band to surface. Get used to seeing his name, he’s gonna be around for a long time.”
This year, Barron got some of his biggest exposure when two of his songs from his “Strangers with Memories” EP, the title track and “Had Me at Hello,” were featured on the Netflix hit “The Ranch.”
Barron spends time in both El Paso and Nashville, and said his journey to success has so far been “an amazing ride.”
“If it weren’t for El Paso I would have never been able to continue chasing my dreams in Nashville,” Barron said. “The support I’ve had over the last eight years has been amazing...somehow people keep showing up and it’s the greatest feeling in the world when I go back home and play for the ‘day ones.’”
Pop Music: Cigarettes After Sex
The music of Cigarettes After Sex is often described, as “ambient pop,” “dream pop” or “slowcore,” but whatever their music is called, their dreamy, melodic single “Apocalypse” has been getting some heavy airtime and became a viral sensation.
Now based in Brooklyn, the group got its atmospheric sound ten years ago when they recorded their first EP, “I,” in 2012, in a four-story stairwell at UTEP. Frontman Greg Gonzalez had called the experience “kind of an experiment,” but it produced some popular singles, including “Affection” and “Nothing Gonna Hurt You Baby,” the latter of which was featured on television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Sinner” and “Shameless.” The track went viral with 65 million views.
Their first studio, self-titled album was released in 2017, which spawned the hit “Apocalypse.” The song has been on Netflix’s “The Rain,” and in the motion picture, “Zoe.”
Not only have they developed a significant fan base, but they also have been getting praise from music critics and reviewers both nationally and abroad. Eardrums Music described their music as “slow, dreamy and beautiful with gorgeous, tender vocals and very good lyrics.”
In a recent interview with the British online newspaper “The Independent,” Gonzalez talked about the band’s success from virtual unknowns to playing sellout crowds in venues as far away as London. He said it might have even been a little quicker than they would have liked.
“I wouldn’t say it was too quick,” Gonzalez said. “But I didn’t know what was supposed to happen. We got into the bigger venues super quick. The band just expanded so quickly; we had no idea what we were doing.”
He did say he always envisioned them being “a huge band,” a goal reached with their self-titled album selling around 175,000 copies and achieving more than 4 million streams.
The group is currently touring throughout Europe and North American, and is planning a second album for 2019.
Even if Cigarettes After Sex hadn’t grown so quickly in popularity, Gonzalez told The Independent, “We wouldn’t have given up on it. “It wasn’t in me to quit, it was too ingrained. I would have had to give up being myself.”
Country: Valerie Ponzio
Vocalist Valerie Ponzio has been hailed as a “Country Mexican Outlaw,” and “Country Music’s Adele,” ever since she gained a four-chair turn last year from judges on the popular NBC music show “The Voice.” After performing her own border region version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” she gained a spot on “Team Blake” on the show (under the wing of country star Blake Shelton), and received a number of positive write-ups in country music magazines like “Country Rebel” and “Wide Open Country.”
Even “Rolling Stone Magazine” noted her performance.
“Channeling Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin,” they wrote, “Ponzio balanced a sweet coo in the beginning with full-throated wails near the end of her performance.”
She is working on her songwriting talents in Nashville, and helped write Justin Ebach’s No. 1 hit “Can’t Sleep Without You.” She also recently opened for Brett Young on his El Paso show.
It is still early in her career, but she is continuing to gain attention from music fans. Her blind audition on “The Voice” reached more than 1 million views.
“Valerie is unique, you know she’s got a very earthy, very different quality about her sound,” Shelton said. “I love that kind of Americana storyteller voice that she has.”
“What I write and sing about is my life, growing up in a border town in Texas and loving country music, so many people, Latinos or not, can relate to that,” Ponzio told “Latin Times” in January.
“What makes me really happy is when people tell me they feel a connection to my voice. There’s a lot I try to say in the way I sing. The things I’ve been through in life have majorly shaped how and what I sing and it brings me so much joy when people say they can hear all of those colors and tones in my voice. Music is a connection and when you can establish that with a fan and listener it’s such a rewarding gift.”
Indie - Punk: At The Drive-in
At The Drive-In is the only one of these performers who appeared on our original list 17 years ago, but deserve a second look simply because they helped spawn so many other successful acts consisting of former members.
The band was formed by Jim Ward and Cedric Bixler in 1994 to perform at a Loretto High School Fair, and was soon releasing their first album, “Hell Paso” and touring around Texas.
The band parted ways in 2001 right after releasing their most popular album, “Relationship of Command.” The album landed them spots on late night shows, with their single “One Armed Scissor” getting play on both radio and MTV. They got back together briefly in 2011 and performed at festivals such as Lollapalooza.
Even after their “indefinite hiatus,” former members Ward, Bixler and Omar Rodriguez created their own musical projects, including the formation of the Mars Volta, Sparta, Sleepercar, the Omar Rodriguez Group, and Antemasque, all which gained various levels of success, and spanned in genres from experimental to alt-country.
At The Drive-In reunited again in 2015 with plans for a new tour and album. Ward decided not to stay with the project and member Keeley Davis took over. In 2016, the released their first new single in 16 years, “Governed by Contagions,” and their latest album “in•ter a•li•a” in 2017.
They continue to influence musicians today, especially for “Relationship of Command,” which they recorded after their tour opening for Rage Against the Machine. The album featured a guest appearance by punk legend Iggy Pop. UK-based rock magazine “Kerrang!” listed “Relationship of Command” in the top 50 Greatest Albums of the 21st Century, “Spin Magazine” gave it Number 83 on 100 Greatest Albums from 1985-2005, and MTV2 ranked it No. 90 on their “greatest albums ever” list. “Rock Sound Magazine” even inducted it into it their “Hall of Fame in 2011.”
Sparta also reunited in 2017 for a benefit concert for El Paso Community Foundation, and is currently on a tour of several cities across the United States.
Slate Magazine writer Hilary A. White wrote about the band’s influence and breakup in a list of the best albums from 2000-2009.
“In 2000, no star burned brighter or faster than this extraordinary punk quintet from the Texas border town of El Paso,” she said. “Their split in 2001 came amid a riot of hype the band were reluctantly receiving after an eight-year career, one that saw them widely hailed as ‘the new Nirvana’ and an urgently needed antidote to the boorish rap metal of the time. Fusing Latino flourishes, post-hardcore energy and an anger that was uncommonly sincere, ROC grabbed your attention, held it and then spat you out at the end… For influence, (“Relationships of Command) ranks as one of the biggest albums of the decade.”
Alt-Country: Dirty River Boys
Dirty River Boys’ sound blends country, folk, bluegrass, rock and other genres to get their “red dirt” sound that has caught on with Texas music fans.
The band started out with Nino Cooper and original member Travis Stearns (now replaced by Chris Hausler) playing any event and venue they could get their sound heard. They were soon joined by Marco Gutierrez, who was attending UTEP and playing music on the side with another band. Soon their manager had them playing in other Texas venues. About a year later, their fourth member Colton James joined them.
The group released two EPs, “Long Cold Fall” and “Train Station,” and a studio album, “Science of Flight,” in 2012. Since then they have moved up to headlining status throughout the state.
The band was the focus of a 2015 piece by music writer Kelly Dearmore in “Dallas Observer” titled “The Dirty River Boys are Texas Country’s Best Live Band, and It Isn’t Even Close.”
They continue to tour and release music, with upcoming appearances at the Shiner Music Fest in Shiner Texas, Red Dirt Pub Crawl in Dublin, Ireland, and Colorado’s Steamboat MusicFest next year. Their latest single, “Mesa” was listed in this July’s Rolling Stone Magazine in their weekly list of the best new country songs.
Dearmore said each band member’s ability to perform on various instruments, as well as take over lead vocals, brought attention from a growing amount of fans.
“The Dirty River Boys is the best live act this state has seen in a seriously long time,” Dearmore said. “And they’re still getting started. The only thing they’re done with is playing to empty suburban dance floors.”
They now list Austin as their base of operations, but recently performed in El Paso in August as part of the State Line Music Series.
They’ve talked about the influence El Paso had on their music, including in a 2014 interview with Diffuser.
Gutierrez said he wanted to recreate the sounds of being from a desert community in his songwriting. “(It’s like) an old spaghetti western, desolate, you know, that vibe,” Gutierrez said. “Being from West Texas has definitely influenced the way I write.”
Cooper said in the interview El Paso has also been a big influence to him.
“Culturally, I grew up crossing the border, going to restaurants in Juárez, going out in high school, going to some of those bars that have been there for 100 years,” he said. “It’s a unique way of life. The stories, the experiences, they come out in the songs. We try to visualize that desert feel.”
Metal: P***ing Razors
P***ing Razors is a self-described “psycho punko groove metal” band formed in 1996 in El Paso. They persistently sent demos to record labels across the United States until a German/Los Angeles based label, Noise Records, gave them a chance to release their self-titled album. Over the next four years, they released five more albums and performed at rock festivals all over the world. They also provided the opening track, “Domination,” on the compilation album “Panther, A Tribute to Pantera.”
According to their bio in Reverbation, the band wanted to create “a cross-platform of elements to bridge ‘Punk’ ideals and messages with the hardcore musical aspects of high energy underground ‘Metal’ that listeners could still groove to and connect with.” During their shows, they often traded instruments to show off their multi-instrumental talents and “cohesiveness” as a band.
They toured with some pretty big acts including Hatebreed and Anthrax. Like many rock bands, they went through several changes and members, and other conflicts, and disbanded in 2004, making an attempt to get back together in 2014.
Tricky Falls owner Bobbie Welch said the band has made themselves known in the heavy metal genre worldwide. The recently performed throughout Texas and the western United States, including with Bay Area metal band Skinlab for the nine-show “Brothers in Blood Tour.”
“Although their name is problematic for traditional press outlets,” Welch said. “P***ing Razors are strong representatives for El Paso in the national —and even international — metal scene.”
Music writer Fist of MetalNexus.net said P***ing Razors is the “biggest name in metal in El Paso,” with an influence that reaches far beyond Texas.
Member Mat Lynch said in an interview with Fist how impressed he still is with the El Paso music scene, especially how self-starting many of the local bands are.
“The scene in general in El Paso is a strong and positive one and there’s a lot of respect amongst musicians in our town,” Lynch said. “There are many aspiring bands of all styles and tastes here that do incredibly well to self-promote and the turn-out in support is usually significant for both locals and nationals here as well.”
Las Cruces Country/Folk Scene
El Paso’s sister city upstream along the Rio Grande has its share of musicians who have helped create a legacy for country and folk music. Here’s a quick list at some Las Cruces performers getting some well-deserved love beyond the border region:
Frank Ray. Ray, who will be part of the line up for the Way Out West Festival Oct. 13 at Southwest University Park, served as police officer for Las Cruces until August of 2017, before deciding to pursue his love of music full-time. Since then, his single “Drive,” from his debut EP has reached No. 1 on the Texas Country Charts.
Bri Bagwell. Now based in Austin, Bagwell’s first CD “Banned from Santa Fe,” was released June 2011. She is currently touring Texas and the Southwest, and will return to Las Cruces for the Southern New Mexico Fair and Rodeo Sept. 28. Like the Dirty River Boys, Bagwell will take her sound overseas in November as part of the Texas Red Dirt Pub Crawl in Dublin, Ireland.
Josh Grider. In just over 10 years, the Las Cruces native (now based in New Braunfels, Texas) has eight albums and has toured the U.S. and abroad. His new single “Less and Less” off his latest album “Good People” is currently ranking high on the Texas charts.
Randy Granger. Granger is a Native American performer and teacher, combining Native American flute with musical traditions encompassing rock, jazz, mariachi, and more. His 2008 release “A Place Called Peace” reached No. 12 on the New Age charts.
Steve Smith and the Hard Road Trio. Lifelong musician Steve Smith is one of today’s most respected names in bluegrass. Smith, along with trio members Anne Luna and Christ Sanders, have toured festivals nationwide, and lead popular workshops in the craft. .
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications