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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Carin León is bringing música Mexicana and country ever closer

The música Mexicana star Carin León in Phoenix on May 7, 2024. On Friday, León is releasing the first of what he said will be three albums in 2024. (Cassidy Araiza/The New York Times)

By Craig Marks

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

León grew up in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, Mexico, about 250 miles from Tucson, Arizona. 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. 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 country star Kane Brown and soul singer Leon Bridges; wrote with 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 early this month.

“My comfort zone is being outside of my comfort zone,” León said from his shopping-bag-strewed 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 musica Mexicana — an umbrella phrase encompassing Mexican genres such as norteno, 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, a 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.’”

Musica Mexicana and country music share much in common, despite the seeming cultural and political divisions between the fan bases.

Troy Tomlinson, chair and CEO 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.

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.

Over the course of his solo career, which has included four albums, León has collaborated with numerous Latin actsww, including Colombian stars Camilo and Maluma; Grupo Firme from Tijuana, Mexico; Grupo Frontera from Texas; and boundary-pushing Spanish rapper C. Tangana.

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 Iron 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 norteno group at the time. But singing toe-curling heavy metal “was therapy for me.”

Fittingly, León is about to confound expectations yet again. Before he sets out on an arena tour that will bring him to New York City’s 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 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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