Dancers swirling across a floor, a vibe is both country and Texas, and the idea that cultures and borders can and should be crossed through music and through hope.: that’s the picture Tish Hinojosa paints in the title track of her album Our Little Planet. All of those things have been constantly evolving aspects of Hinojosa’s life in music.
Through that life, she’s moved back and forth between country songs and folk ballads, songs with lyrics in English and in Spanish, tales of history, character, and landscape, love songs, and songs of family and home, all framed in images, ideas, and melodies that reflect a musical imagination shaped by connection with the southwestern part of the United States.
Hinojosa grew up in San Antonio, daughter of parents who had moved to Texas from Mexico. In high school “I started to learn chords on the guitar, and it was like I already knew them,” she recalled. In high school people also told her that she sang well. “That was a moment, I think, too, a turning point,” she said. Soon she was singing at clubs along San Antonio’s Riverwalk, but knew she wanted more. She moved to northern New Mexico.
She found Red River and nearby Taos good for her. “There were lots of ways to go up there — a couple of nights a week I was a folk singer in a bar, and then I met few people and we put a band together and I started singing country music. . We were doing stuff like Michael Martin Murphey, Rodney Crowell, Gram Parsons, Rosanne Cash, stuff people would dance to. For me it was like the next chapter. I couldn’t soak up enough or learn enough songs, and I was writing too.” She found a way to try her songs out. “I’d hide them in dance sets,” she said. “Put a two step rhythm to it, and people would be dancing to them.”
A time on the national scene playing folk clubs became the chapter after that, and then it seemed that Nashville might be the next right thing. It wasn’t, but those Nashville days would, decades later, offer the spark for Our Little Planet.
On the way to that, though, Hinojosa and her young family moved to Austin. She released a number of well received albums among them Culture Swing and Destiny’s Gate. Her work drew comparisons to Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt (who recorded one of her songs) for her singing, and recognition for her songwriting, too. “I became known as an artist of substance, and I liked that,” she said, “ but the record company people didn’t know what to do with me.” Despite ups and downs with major labels and independents through shifting record market fortunes, Hinojosa continued touring, and continued writing, and continued finding ways to release albums. Though she most often mixes English and Spanish songs in her work, she’s done several all Spanish albums, including the live recording Aquella Noche and the innovative Soñar Del Laberinto. Not long ago, she decided it was time to do another.
“I was working on an all Spanish record,” she said, “and I had some good songs for it, but I just wasn’t writing or finding the songs I needed to finish it.” Hinojosa maintains a strong presence in Austin, where she lived for more than a decade, but she’s now based in Hamburg, Germany. “ I keep traveling back and forth from Austin to Hamburg, and with every trip I clear out more closets in Austin. One day I found a whole box of my old Nashville tapes, back from when I was a demo singer there in the eighties, and was starting to write country songs. There were songs on there that I had absolutely, totally forgotten. They were half finished songs, maybe just a verse and chorus, but I found three or four that were just real gems.” Intrigued, she started writing new material, as well as working on the songs she’d found. “I finished them, rounded them out — I think I’m a slightly better writer now than I was then!” she said.
Those songs, and the whole album, she points out, “aren’t commercial country. We made it more basic, more in a folk or bluegrass vein. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Carter Family, but sort of like that.” Country with a certain Hinojosa vibe, to be sure. There’s a reflection on relationships, connections, and change in Is Time Being Kind, a soulful love song in Spanish, Mi Pueblo, with Austin native Carrie Rodriguez adding duet vocals and fiddle; that swirling polka of the title track, with lyrics in both English and Spanish; a song of journeys both emotional and spiritual, called Roadsongs and Bygones, and eight other equally interesting tracks.
“I decided I wanted to do a record that reflected the simplicity of our show these days — we usually tour with just two guitars, maybe a mandolin, and our voices, real straight ahead,” Hinojosa said. “ The record is all acoustic except for some pedal steel. I’ve got a country shuffle on there, and a polka, some really nice duets, some bluegrass sounding stuff, and a couple of the songs are in Spanish. I’m really happy with it.”
Though she is now based in Germany, Hinojosa is not looking toward writing songs in German, at least not any time soon. She’d like to sing German folk songs for her audiences there, though, and to make her way around town and have conversations. She’s working on that. “Every time I think I’ve got something down, there comes another rule!” Tish Hinojosa said, laughing.
photograph of Tish Hinojosa copyright Kerry Dexter