June 20, 2024

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Carin León Is Bringing Música Mexicana and Country Ever Closer


In January 2023, the música Mexicana star Carin León was preparing for a concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena when he decided he needed to do something special for an encore.

León grew up in Hermosillo, the capital city of Sonora, Mexico, about 250 miles from Tucson, Ariz. Music was always playing around his home, often from border radio stations that piped in a wide variety of American hits, and his father was known to listen to David Allen Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey” on cassette over and over.

“Me and my brother would sing the song as kids, but we would make up different lyrics because we didn’t know English back then,” León said. The country giant Chris Stapleton turned his R&B-slow-dance cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” into a career breakthrough, and León, a Stapleton superfan, worked up his own powerfully soulful version for the largely Latino audience in Nashville.

“The next day, the performance went viral,” León said. “People were saying, he can sing country music, he can sing in English. So that gave me a little spark.”

León, 34, was already a Latin Grammy-winning artist with billions of streams on Spotify before he covered “Tennessee Whiskey” — and before he released bilingual collaborations with the country star Kane Brown and the soul singer Leon Bridges; wrote with the Nashville veterans Jon Pardi, Cody Johnson and Natalie Hemby; earned a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry with a set entirely in Spanish; became the first Latin artist to perform at both the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals; and opened for the Rolling Stones in early May.

“My comfort zone is being outside of my comfort zone,” León said from his shopping-bag-strewn suite at a swank Beverly Hills hotel in California, his girlfriend and team at his side. “There are no limits for music. There’s just good music and bad music.”

Alongside Peso Pluma, Grupo Frontera, Fuerza Regida, Natanael Cano and Eslabon Armado, León is part of a wave of artists who have lifted música Mexicana — an umbrella phrase encompassing Mexican genres like norteño, banda, ranchera, grupera, mariachi and corridos tumbados — to new heights of popularity in the United States. (León famously rejected a more restrictive term for the genre, “regional Mexican,” when he wore a T-shirt at an awards show that featured a four-letter expletive before the word “regional”).

Among those artists, León is perhaps both the most traditional — eschewing youthful hip-hop leanings or reggaeton rhythms for organic, hand-played instrumentation and romantic balladry — and also the most naturally progressive, a supremely gifted singer who blows through musical and cultural divides with fearlessness and determination.

“Carin breaks all the rules,” Edgar Barrera, the Latin super-producer and León’s frequent collaborator, said in a video interview. “Regional Mexican music has always been looked down on. It’s seen as very rural. Carin is like, ‘We’re a lot more global than you think.’”

Música Mexicana and country music share much in common, despite the seeming cultural and political divisions between the fan bases. Streaming has raised the visibility of both genres, turning what were previously considered provincial musics into commercial forces. The American cowboy, so much a part of the iconography and outlaw ethos of country music, is based on the Mexican vaquero. “That deadly 200-mile border along the southern part of the States has been a zone of cultural exchange for hundreds of years,” said Nadine Hubbs, a University of Michigan professor and author of the forthcoming book “Border Country: Mexico, America, and Country Music.”

At Stagecoach, backed by his 20-plus-piece band from Hermosillo, León wore chaps and a Tejana hat (akin to a Stetson) and took swigs from a bottle of bacanora, the once-outlawed Sonoran cousin to mezcal and tequila. His set included a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black.”

Troy Tomlinson, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville, which signed León in 2023, said that “authenticity and humility” are what generally move country music fans, and León possesses both in spades. “I’ve been going to the Opry since I was 10 years old, and his was one of the most moving shows I’ve ever seen,” he said. Tomlinson believes the evening marked a turning point in Nashville’s tortoise-slow evolution in accepting nonwhite artists into its fold.

“I admit — for the first 30 years of my career, I always thought of everything in genre boxes,” he said. “But younger audiences, and streaming, have begun to change this town.”

Since the 1970s, a small number of Mexican American artists — most prominently Johnny Rodriguez, Freddy Fender, Linda Ronstadt and Rick Trevino — found success in country music, singing primarily in English. Wyatt Flores, a rising Mexican American singer-songwriter, performed at Stagecoach on the same day as León. And amid a growing movement in and around Nashville to promote artists of color, Beyoncé and Shaboozey each held the top spot on Billboard’s hot country songs chart.

Institutional racism still plagues Nashville, but, Tomlinson said, “I can’t tell you how many people in the industry called me the day after they saw my photo with Carin from the Opry and said, ‘Tell me more about this.’”

Over the course of his solo career, which has included four albums, León has collaborated with numerous Latin acts, including the Colombian stars Camilo and Maluma, Grupo Firme from Tijuana, Mexico, Grupo Frontera from Texas and the boundary-pushing Spanish rapper C. Tangana. León credits Tangana for inspiring him to take risks. “For years, I wasn’t happy doing the music I was doing,” he explained from the back of a black S.U.V., en route to perform “It was Always You (Siempre Fuiste Tú),” his feathery duet with Bridges, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” “I wasn’t happy with my relationships. I was angry about life.” Everything changed, he said, “when I started to do the music I wanted to do.”

León has always been a polymath. He studied opera in high school and loved hard rock singers with big, flowery voices: Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Journey’s Steve Perry, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. (When we spoke, he was contemplating covering Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” or “The Trooper” for the Rolling Stones gig.) “When I was a teenager, I was in a cover band called Angry Beaver,” he said with a grin. He was playing in a norteño group at the time. But singing toe-curling heavy metal “was therapy for me.”

Barrera described León’s voice as very emotional. “The high notes he hits are very high and the low notes are very low,” he said. “It’s unusual in our genre for a singer to show such range.” Brown, who sang with León on the lilting, reggae-tinged “The One (Pero No Como Yo),” called his collaborator’s voice “amazing”: “Carin can do whatever he wants.”

Fittingly, León is about to confound expectations yet again. Before he sets out on an arena tour that will bring him to Madison Square Garden in October, he’s releasing the first of what he said will be three albums in 2024. He said the making of the 19-song “Boca Chueca Vol. 1” (“Crooked Mouth,” a reference to his habit of curling his lip when he sings) was cathartic.

“I say a lot of stuff that I was never capable of saying before, about me, about the genre. I’m embracing my demons. It’s like” — he paused to find a word — “vomit for me. I need to get it out.” The full album, due Friday, includes a guitar-driven track called “Frené Mis Pies” that sounds like a transmission from a 1980s heartland rock CD. “It’s Carin at 15,” he said gleefully.

León can barely keep track of his musical explorations, at one point in the conversation casually mentioning a duet with the rising country star Lainey Wilson, at another slipping in the fact that he worked with Kid Harpoon, a producer for Harry Styles. Barrera described a song that may or may not be on one of the “Boca Chueca” releases as “disco meets regional Mexican.” Such creative promiscuity is paying dividends; León and his label, Socios Music, are reportedly poised to strike a lucrative joint-venture deal with a major record company.

“I want Mexican music to be so much bigger,” León said. “That’s my mission. I want people to open their minds and their ears.” But mostly, he concluded, “I just want to make music I like.”



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