New York Times | Allen R. Myerson
If millions of Anglos are ever going to love country music performed by a Mexican-American Tejano star, first a couple of dozen of them filming a music video are going to have to learn Emilio Navaira’s sly, hip-swiveling stage turn — known to his Hispanic fans as the Emilio Shuffle.
Record company executives and corporate sponsors are betting that Emilio, as he calls himself, can fulfill the promise of the late Selena by becoming the first Tex-Mex musician singing in both Spanish and English to capture nationwide audiences in Mexico and the United States.
Which is why, for a big-budget music video promoting Emilio’s first country-and-western album in English, dancers and models on a Texas honky-tonk set are trying to do the Emilio Shuffle before the cameras. “Kick! Kick! Back! Back! One, Two, Three, Four!” a production manager is hollering through a megaphone. “Hip! Hip! Back! Back! Emilio! Emilio!” They try it again. No. Again. Not right. Finally, the video producers have the film they need.
To the record producers and promoters of the Tejano music industry, all such efforts are worth it. Selena and the national attention she brought to the music, they figure, were only the start. By the time Selena Quintanilla Perez was killed earlier this year, Tejano, a bouncy, borderland blend of Latin pop, Germanic polka and and country rhythms sung in Spanish, had already become one of the music world’s hottest specialties.
Annual domestic sales of Tejano recordings have quadrupled to more than $120 million in four years, not counting hybrid bilingual products like the posthumous Selena CD’s and tapes, which are still selling strong. Tejano concert and club revenues are also booming, and Tejano radio stations have multiplied.
At 33, Emilio has inherited Selena’s mantle as Tejano’s brightest star. For six years running, he has been named male entertainer of the year at the Tejano Music Awards, while Selena, a friend of long standing, won best female.
But Emilio’s backers want to take him a step farther, making him the first truly bilingual star in the United States and Mexico, singing both Tejano in Spanish and country and western in English. If he can succeed at marketing his talents across borders, languages and ethnic groups, Emilio would be perfecting another sort of shuffle, one that scores of major American corporations are trying to pick up. As Hispanic Americans, although diverse, become the nation’s largest minority, and as trade and cultural barriers with Mexico fall, corporate America is learning how to reshape its products and marketing.
In the five months after Selena’s death on March 31, 619 newborn girls in Texas were given her previously rare name. Five of her albums reached the Billboard 200 simultaneously, a feat achieved only by the likes of Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
Emilio’s backers believe that even before the nationwide attention that followed Selena’s murder, country music fans — mostly white Americans — were ready for a star who still performed and recorded in Spanish but who also sang country and western in English. And they think Mexicans may be ready to hear an American country star singing in English, provided he can dish out interviews and stage patter in Spanish.
Thus inspired, recording executives and agents in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York have bestowed their blessings and cash on what they call the Emilio Project.
Emilio’s brother-in-law and first manager, Joe R. Casias, was hired last year by the William Morris Agency, the nation’s largest booking firm, as its first Tejano agent, arranging shows for Emilio and many other acts. And under Emilio’s former co-manager, a new label, Arista Texas, has opened in Austin to promote other Tex-Mex musicians with Anglo appeal, mixing Tejano and country in Spanish and English on the same albums.
In Emilio, promoters who are looking for a Tejano star who can break into the lucrative country music business have a singer who is happy — some critics say too happy — to oblige them. Emilio already had a Miller Lite sponsorship deal in Texas when Scott Hendricks, the new president of Capitol Nashville, Emilio’s country- and-western label, told him in May that 3 of the 10 English tracks on his new album fell short. Mr. Hendricks suggested that one new song tie in with the “Life Is Good” Texas advertising campaign of Miller Lite, which is owned by the Philip Morris Companies. He then had 20 songwriters submit their versions.
Emilio readily agreed to record the winner. And so his album, released in October, was titled “Life Is Good,” his concert and club appearances became the “Life is Good” tour and “Life is Good’ billboards now line the state’s highways, featuring both the singer and the brew.
Miller is so delighted that depending on his record sales, Emilio might become a national sponsor this year. Others say he went too far to get a beer company’s backing. “I think this is going overboard,” said Ramiro Burr, who covers Tejano music for Billboard magazine.
Besides Miller Lite, Emilio promotes Wrangler jeans and Stetson hats. For the convenience of Anglo disk jockeys, he has dropped his last name, instead of adopting a more Americanized one.
“I don’t look like an Emilio Smith,” he said recently over tacos filled with chorizo, a Mexican sausage, and eggs, after crooning one of his country songs on a “CBS This Morning” segment in San Antonio. At 5 foot 6, lanky he’s not, not even in his usual black cowboy hat and roper boots. But he does have a jutting jaw and a bright, y’all-come-party grin, and he looks several inches taller once he starts singing.
Many sponsors have come to love Tejano artists, who manage to be ribald and rowdy enough for their fans but wholesome enough for the corporate executives. Selena, who strutted onstage in tighter-than-tight halter tops, was managed by her father and married to a band member. Emilio married a high school sweetheart, has two children and has put his family and in-laws to work running his company, Emilio Inc.
Although the Emilio Shuffle makes female Tejano fans in the United States squeal, it is unclear how many Anglos or native Mexicans will come to admire a Tejano artist’s footwork or beat. But Hispanic business executives like Emilio — his staff of 20 handles tour logistics, souvenir sales and the like — know that their greatest prospects lie in marketing their foods, their culture and their talents to mainstream America.
“These are bicultural artists, they are not just bilingual,” said Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin, who signed Selena in 1989 and bought Emilio’s small independent Tejano record label in 1990. “You’re always going to have fans that have problems with Hispanics singing country. But the masses don’t care whether the artist is from Nigeria or Corpus Christi, like Selena, or San Antonio, like Emilio. And the record labels are more open than ever.”
Even as he prepares for wider American exposure, Emilio aims to become the first successful ambassador of country music in Mexico (“the Nafta tour,” he calls it). Last month, he was signing his country-and-western albums at Wal-Mart stores in Monterrey and Mexico City. EMI Latin, which like Capitol Nashville is owned by Thorne EMI, has opened a Monterrey office, and this month the producers of Country Music Television plan to feature his videos on a new Spanish-language network in Mexico.
No wonder Emilio’s manager, Stewart Dill, whose curly blond hair and Southern drawl (“the ‘Bama boy,” Emilio calls him) make him look and sound more like a country musician than his client, has a college degree in diplomacy.
Emilio is already off to a strong start. “Life Is Good” broke in three months ago at No. 13 on the Billboard charts, an almost unheard-of debut for a country-and-western album. He has signed up for a 70-concert tour with Alan Jackson, last year’s country music performer of the year (and also a Miller Lite endorser).
Although a few other Hispanic (but not Mexican-American) musicians who initially sang in Spanish, like Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias, have won large Anglo audiences, their successes have been isolated. Emilio and the executives around him are trying to make cultural crossovers institutional and permanent.
Lest anyone question his credentials, Emilio says he grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Bob Wills, wanting to sing country from the start. “But being from the south side of San Antonio, the only way I could get into the clubs was to play Latin,” he said.
Even after repeated rejections from Nashville executives certain that no borderland performer of Spanish songs could succeed with country and western, Emilio trusted in his talents. Now, he says, his success will test not only his abilities but also whether the mainstream can accommodate those whose roots are closer to the Rio Grande.
“Hey, man,” he said. “I was born in America, too.”