Or: Carrie Rodriguez builds bridges.
“Love is omni-inclusive, progressively exquisite, understanding and compassionately attuned to other than self,” Buckminster Fuller once wrote; and if we take him at his word, we can hear Carrie Rodriguez’ Lola as an album full of border-crossing love songs, tales of closeness and of separation, of humanity as a verb and love as something outward-looking, self-preserving by implication but not by intention. Here, as per Ralph Ellison, politics is an expression of love, and vice versa. Mercifully, Lola is rarely explicit about public policy because it doesn’t have to be. It’s an album that champions unity by celebrating diversity. It affirms human dignity as it’s expressed by music and culture. For its inspiration is claims ranchera, a Mexican country music idiom that’s earthy, passionate, and visceral, proud of its lineage without any great need to make a stink over it. The language here is blended, sometimes Spanish and sometimes English but more often than not both in the same song or even the same sentence. The setting is a border town where rituals and folklores can’t help but bleed together, and where it’s always easy enough to slip under a fence to get closer to the music. We are alike, this music tells us, in our shared fracture; in our dignity in the face of it, whether we realize it or not. There’s no particular need to spell out the politics of any of this; nothing to be gained by shifting the focus from humanity to sloganeering, because humanity is entirely the point. And so Lola gives us broken love songs, tragedies of separation, weathered romances about how hard and how good it is to be together. The record carries great hurt, and finds joy in it; it channels resilience from sorrow.
Rodriguez crowdfunded this recording. It’s a labor of love and a testament to all that she is and everything she can do as a recording artist. That she can fiddle her ass off doesn’t need further proving; check any of her past recordings, either with Chip Taylor or as a solo artist, especially Give Me All You Got. There’s some of that here, too, of course, but also a voice that can carry scars, defiance, whimsy, humor, and history both personal and cultural within its grain; a record maker who can merge originals and standards, exert tight formal control before blowing it wide open, and allow plenty of color and texture into her music while maintain locomotive beats and spontaneous combustion; a writer and curator of songs who, like Doug Sahm before her, plays quintessentially Texas music while knowing full well that it holds cosmic sway and an expansive vocabulary for human story and emotion. She bottled this one in Austin, with producer Lee Townsend and a backing band called the Sacred Hearts—Bill Frisell just one of the three guitarists assembled here. The focus throughout is on shading and texture, not just riffs; the music conjures dusty back roads and old-time radio booths padded with velvet, yet every song packs a punch: Nothing here sounds like a museum piece. The record is named for Lola Beltran, a luminous ranchera figure who is called and raised in a kind of séance, the guiding light for a record that’s born of a particular tradition but seems also to exist out of time altogether. Eva Garza—Rodriguez’ great-aunt, and herself an international singing sensation from the 1940s—isn’t called by name but her presence is central to what makes the record work: Rodriguez isn’t playing a tourist here, but rather is dressing herself in everything that this music and its inclusive, cross-border implications mean to her as a matter of birthright, lineage, the particularities of her own time and place.
Lola also happens to be a great deal of fun; there’s no better way to explain the way “Perfidia” begins the record as a slinky little tango before casting off those rhythmic constraints to become a loping, steel-drenched country music with nylon guitar plucking in the foreground. Rodriguez sings it in Spanish but you don’t have to understand a word of it to understand that this is a love song made for stormy weather: Glenn Miller once recorded this song as a swaying slow dance and Nat King Cole did it as conga-driven exotica, both versions tender paeans to intimacy even amidst hardship. Rodgiruez’ version is more ragged than either of those but it still channels romance through the sound of fingers on strings; there is something sensually pleasing, almost tactile in its lilt, and something significant in its warmth and affection. Not for nothing does Rodriguez open her album about false borders and artificial division with a song that longs for caress; a song that pleads for closeness and communion with the beloved. Raul Malo is here to sing harmonies—his voice lifted up in perfect unity, maybe just across the dance floor, maybe half a world away.
Also fun is a Rodriguez original, “Z,” which is born of personal experience. The subtext to this one is that a lifetime of accomplishment can be washed away by ignorance and indifference, as Rodriguez testifies to her own righteous fiddle skills—“Been breaking it down ever since I was little,” she says, her musical vocabulary wide enough to encompass opera and honky tonk in the same line—and then to showing up for gigs in the white bread world of American country music (and that includes “alt” country, one imagines) just to see her name misspelled on the marquee. To struggle with spelling “Rodriguez” is to not really be trying, the song suggests, and she tells country music where it can stick its Z. It’s a riot, but there’s a rallying cry underneath—a wish for more country marquees to be alit with names that aren’t straightforwardly Anglo-Saxon in their origins. What makes it kick is how the chorus comes barreling out of the gate like solid gold honky tonk, all sawing fiddle and popping drum breaks; and how the lyric is framed as grandmotherly wisdom. Her advice? Don’t back down: “Never meet ‘em in the middle/ It’s better when you’re older if you don’t learn to settle/ Doors are gonna open if you want them to/ But you might have to knock ‘em down.”
Much of the album’s appeal is in how it condenses its sophistication into something visceral and earthy; how its virtuosity serves juke joint anthems and gutbucket blues. The message is in the medium; the populist jams here don’t acknowledge borders or elitist distinctions any more than the lyrics do, and there’s no compromise to any of it. “Llano Estacado” gets low-down, Frisell’s guitar growling and Brannen Temple’s drums conjuring scrap-heap cling and clatter. His work brings a spindly, ramshackle quality to the entire record; every beat from the snare seems to have a tambourine clattering along with it, a cymbal whoop following close behind. The song itself is a ghost town, still haunted by the stories of immigrant families who have come and gone. These are the characters who populate Rodriquez’ songs just as factory workers and Jersey Shore bums line up in Springsteen’s—though unlike his, hers never give into despair. They’re wounded but proud; they recognize their own dignity even when no one else does.
They also tell stories that have broader resonance, without ever slipping over the line into allegory. A tune like “La Ultima Vez” is pregnant with implication even as it seems at every possible angle to skirt metaphor. Rodriguez sings from the perspective of a wife who’s been intruded upon, imposed upon, insulted and in the end ignored; it’s not her version of “Rosie Strikes Back”—it’s measured and steely where that Rosanne Cash classic is explosive and raging—but it does sound like a summoning of strength and a finding of voice. Rodriguez sings it with rawness and resolve, while guitars and fiddle circle all around the melody.
“The West Side,” an original song, is the closest the record gets to topicality—though even here it joins a tradition of other-side-of-the-tracks anthems that go back at least as far as Johnny Rivers and “Poor Side of Town.” It’s really another human story, though—a remembrance of growing up in a wealthier part of town and having poor Latino kids bused in to get something like a decent schooling. It’s a song where guilt wrestles with privilege: “Mama says that life ain’t fair/ We were born over here and you over there/ We can help you out but you ain’t our cross to bear/ Not that we don’t care.” Compassion is measured out in spoonfuls. Our shared humanity is affirmed with reluctance, our differences kept the priority and the focus.
“Que Manera De Perder”—a ranchera standard by Cuco Sanchez, with a title that translates to “What a Way to Lose”—is another broken love song, presented not with despair but with wistfulness. It’s got a shuffling gait and an electric guitar twang that both come from outlaw country, and a resigned duet vocal from Luke Jacobs, bearing weary witness to brokenness as the very thing that binds us: “Heartache happens all the time/ You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine/ What is love without the losing?/ What is life without the choosing?” His verse is an answer to Rodriguez, who voices the other lover entirely in Spanish. There’s a separation here too wide to bridge; a fracture that can’t be mended, but must be affirmed.
Ancestry is important to this record, as Rodriguez stands in the strange and howling weather of culture, folk song, and blood; connective tissue that spans our fissures and holds together our fraying humanity. She engages it directly on “Si No Te Vas,” the record’s truest and purest ranchera number, presented first in an instrumental version and then in a vocal reprise. Max Baca guests on the latter, playing bajo sexto; there’s a wistful mariachi sway to the piece, but Rodriguez pushes her vocal to a nearly operatic level; she goes for broke, as she does throughout the record, keeping these traditions from rusting over. “I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltran,” meanwhile, is a slippery folk song. It comes on like a black-and-white memory slowly bursting into full-on Technicolor. Here a crooner and a diva find love in the radio booth—and the song’s narrator is left to dream, emboldened by her vision of love—out there for floating in the airwaves; up for grabs, and free for the taking.