The Living Legend (Norte/Sony BMG, 2005)
I had never heard of Vicente Fernández until recently when I saw a post for the CD box-set, The Living Legend on this site. Yet, Don Fernández who was dubbed “The Sinatra of Rancheras” by the Houston Chronicle, has released over 100 albums in Mexico and starred in enough films to make him a movie star in Mexico. He has been lauded with prestigious industry awards and given keys to many cities. So why haven’t I heard of Vicente Fernández until now?
I’m not unfamiliar with rancheras because I have heard this genre of music featured on a Seattle-based community radio show, Música de la Raza which airs on KBCS early Saturday mornings–too early to catch the names of the performers featured on the show. I’ve heard rancheras lingering in the background of countless Mexican food restaurants that I frequented in the past, but I never inquired about the music with the wait staff. Who knows, Fernández’ award-winning songs probably came with my nachos and tacos.
Rancheras compare with African-American blues, Portuguese fados and Spanish flamenco. “As with flamenco, its musical cousin, behind the ranchera’s melodrama looms loss, pride, honor and existential grief.” (press notes). Rancheras also are a component of Tex-Mex music and Native American chicken scratch or waila of the Tohono O’odham (Papago) people. (You can find waila recordings on Canyon
I’m of Puerto Rican origins so I’m not that familiar with Mexican culture. Although my grandmother resides in El Paso, Texas, which is largely populated by Mexicans, I do not recall her ever playing rancheras in her home, although she did watch Mexican soaps on a regular basis. Perhaps Vicente’s music appeared on those soaps, but not being a fan of soap operas, I would not have paid attention. Also I live in the north and I am influenced by Canadian more than Mexican culture. However, if I happened to be a Spanish-speaking Chicana who didn’t know about Vicente Fernández that would be a shame. With his “El Rey” (The King), title, he has become a looming icon in the Mexican cultural fabric, but it is doubtful that many non-Hispanic Americans would know about this Mexican equivalent of Elvis.
Thanks to Sony & BMG Music Entertainment Norte, fans of traditional music such as myself can play catch-up and learn what the Mexican people find caliente. The bilingual 3-CD set, The Living Legend offers listeners a comprehensive primer about the 66 year old Mexican folkloric legend. A 72-page booklet packed with photographs from the artist’s personal collection, an extensive film and discography and biography accompany the CDs which feature songs hand-picked by the artist himself. He divides the songs into 3 categories. The first CD honors his homeland, the second CD celebrates life on the ranch and the third CD honors the women in his life, which includes his wife who has been with Vicente from the get-go. Not bad and even ironic for a famous musician who plays macho roles and
whose music exudes masculine pride. You won’t find any real life stormy affairs tied to this hombre (which is refreshing).
It’s hard to believe that Vicente with his operatic vocals, his sincere palette of emotions and gift as a songwriter had once been turned down by several major labels. Possessing a work ethic that would frighten most people and determination to match, the vocalist puts his fans first, even to the point of performing after he heard of his father’s death and completing a tour after he heard that his eldest son was kidnapped (Vicente didn’t know his son’s whereabouts for 4 months).
Certainly the rousing and sometimes sentimental music on these discs does touch the heart. Vicente’s vocals, which are backed by immaculate Mariachi musicians caress his listeners ears and his authentic emotions leave a lasting impression. “His gift for using his voice to plead, to taunt, to exult and to bare his soul is unmatched. Through the years he inspired hundreds of imitators, but none could ever match his rare mix of operatic power and earthiness. As a singer, he is an absolute force of nature.” (Notes from CD book)
I can see where the comparisons to Elvis, Muddy Waters and Sinatra come into play. And the lesson for dejected musicians reading this review is don’t listen to the opinions of record label decision makers and keep pursuing your dream. Vicente’s rags to riches story proves where determination and fate can lead. And Vicente did this with only a 5th grade education.
Certainly both Spanish and non-Spanish speaking music fans can enjoy this Mexican treasure and with three discs, there’s enough music here to satisfy party guests. And speaking of celebrations,
The Living Legend would be perfect for Mexican Independence Day, (September 16), Day of the Dead (November 1 & 2), the Mexican Revolution Day of 1910 (November 20), Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12) and don’t forget Cinco de Mayo. Vicente will be touring the U.S. this fall so here is your chance to see the “Sinatra of Rancheras.” Don’t forget to bring along your sombrero.
Tour Dates 2006 U.S. Tour
13 Laredo, TX, Laredo Entertainment Center
14 & 15 McAllen, TBC
21 Atlanta, GA, TBC
22 Rosemont, IL, Allstate Arena
28 Dallas, TX, Smirnoff Music Center
29 Houston, TX, TBC
3-5 Universal City, CA, Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk
10-12, same as above
24 San Jose, CA, TBC
25 Las Vegas, TBC
More dates TBA
Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.