Hard as it is to imagine in retrospect, for a brief time in the mid-’90s, America’s notoriously staid country music industry not only embraced but made stars of the Mavericks, a literate, retro-countrypolitan Florida band of R.E.M., Beatles and Cheap Trick fans fronted by a Cuban crooner of the Roy Orbison / Chris Isaak school. Smart, stylish and completely unlike anyone else on the scene, the Mavericks powered across the charts and the airwaves in 1995 with a string of memorable singles whose intelligence, wit and personality truly stood out from their surroundings. That’s a nice reward for a band that chose to play country music only as a compromise when they couldn’t agree amongst themselves on any other style.
The Maverick’s self-titled debut introduced all the elements which would bring them success: Raul Malo’s soaring tenor, the band’s throwback, classic country style and a set of smart songs, mostly penned by the band themselves.
The more polished sound of From Hell to Paradise benefits the reprises of first-album songs “Mr. Jones” and “End of the Line” (minus its Jim Bakker specific subtitle). The title track is a Malo original chronicling a journey from Cuba to Florida. Ironically, considering how popular the first song would become for other Nashville cats a few years later, covers of Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'” and Buck Owens’ “Excuse Me” are essentially filler. The album made only a minor splash at the time, but it was enough of one for a buzz to land the group an opening slot on the first headlining tour of rising country superstar Trisha Yearwood. Bassist Robert Reynolds went one better, marrying (and divorcing) Yearwood herself.
The title track of What a Crying Shame, which could stand proudly alongside the best of Roy Orbison, became the band’s commercial breakthrough. The rest of the album is nearly as good, with strong singles in “O What a Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart.”
Having proved they could deliver the commercial goods, the Mavericks began branching out with Music for All Occasions. The artwork, a nod to 60’s lounge music album covers, signals the changes, as the Mavericks took note of the nostalgia fueling the mid-’90s swing and lounge music revivals. Retro touches abound, from the dramatic countrypolitan of “Here Comes the Rain” to Malo and Yearwood’s duet on the Nancy & Frank Sinatra classic “Something Stupid.” “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” features Tex-Mex legend Flaco Jimenez on accordion. Music for All Occasions seemed to signal a new era of glasnost for Nashville, the industry, raising the possibility that a band like the Jayhawks or Bottle Rockets might be able to sneak a hit onto country radio, too. Music for All Occasions was one of the landmark albums of the decade in any genre.
By the time the Mavericks released Trampoline, however, formula and conformity was again the rule as the industry transferred its enthusiasm to AOR-pop with country accents, in the persons of Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Shania Twain. Country radio took one listen to this eclectic album and wanted nothing to do with it. Kicking off with the catchy, Latin-fueled “Dance the Night Away,” Trampoline showcases a band at the peak of its confidence and creativity with no interest in being constricted by anyone’s expectations. The band tackles everything from cha-cha to mambo to retro-country pop and excel at all of them. By the time the jazzy, jitterbugging “Delores” makes her appearance, it’s almost possible to hear the sound of country radio programmers nationwide flinging the album away. To the Mavericks’ courageous artistic credit, Trampoline proved them too ambitious for their own commercial good.
The Super Colossal Smash Hits of the 90’s collection includes four otherwise unreleased tracks, including a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby,” and a well-chosen selection of hits.
Trampoline‘s reception and Malo’s growing interest in exploring his Latin roots were factors in the band’s subsequent dissolution. Following the split, Malo hooked up with the Latin supergroup Los Super Seven for their second album, Canto, and recorded his first solo album, Today. The title track picks up where Trampoline‘s “Dance the Night Away” left off and is a monster of a horn-driven Cuban-rhythm dance track. He sings four numbers in Spanish, demonstrating wondrous new possibilities for his soaring voice. Shelby Lynne guests on a duet of “It Takes Two to Tango.”
Reynolds got together with Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson (at the time a resident of Nashville), Sixpence None the Richer’s Jerry Dale McFadden, solo artist Doug Powell and Wilco’s Ken Coomer to form the part-time power pop supergroup Swag. Despite the pedigree, Catchall is something of a disappointment. It’s a decent album that wouldn’t sound out of place in Chris Stamey’s catalog, but it’s a project by sidemen and sounds it: there’s no clear overriding personality in evidence. It didn’t help that the album was overshadowed by Petersson’s withdrawal from the group and a subsequent spat which resulted in his removal from the disc’s packaging.
The Mavericks reunited in 2003 and released another self-titled album. It’s good to have them back, but the reunion feels a little tentative. Malo is clearly the star here, and perhaps overshadows the other band members too much. The Mavericks continues in the we’ll-try-anything vein of Music for All Occasions and Trampoline, but a hesitancy in the performances suggests that the Mavericks have lost some of their confidence. They still tower head and shoulders over most other units on the scene, though it’s even more difficult to figure out which scene exactly they tower over. Though still slotted in the country racks at retail, that classification bears less relation to the Mavericks’ reality than ever.
Malo teamed up with Nashville veterans Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy for the gorgeous Nashville Acoustic Sessions. Covering a variety of standards from “Moon River” to “Hot Burrito #1,” Malo and cohorts deliver respectful but exciting performances. It’s not a major addition to Malo’s body of work, but an effortlessly enjoyable one.