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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Accordionist Plugs Into the Mainstream With Tex-Mex Style : Flaco Jimenez has gained critical acclaim, a growing audience with his distinctive style. His Tornados hit Ventura on Saturday.

February 15, 1996|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when playing the accordion might land you a gig with Lawrence Welk or earn you a one-way ticket to Nerdsville.

But these days, accordion-playing Flaco Jimenez is doing just fine--actually, a lot better than fine. The two-time Grammy winner has parlayed his innovative style into two Grammy nominations, a critically acclaimed CD, and guest spots on records, including the Rolling Stones' "Voodoo Lounge."

To better understand his musical diversity, here is a partial list of artists Jimenez has recorded with: Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens, Ry Cooder, Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris.

And that's Jimenez on "All You Do Is Bring Me Down," the new hit by the Grammy-nominated group the Mavericks, now blasting the country airwaves.

Jimenez is clearly more than just the king of conjunto accordion. Fans know him as a founding member of that Grammy-winning Texas Tornados, known as the Grateful Dead of Tex-Mex music. And Jimenez and his Lone Star State buddies (Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers) will bring their unique amalgam of blues, Tejano, hard-core country and early rock 'n' roll to the Ventura Theatre on Saturday.

All four road veterans were born and raised in the San Antonio area. But except for childhood friends Sahm and Meyers, Jimenez and his fellow Texans didn't join forces until 1989, when the quartet performed at Slim's, Boz Scaggs' San Francisco nightspot, as the Tex-Mex Revue.

Soon afterward, Warner Bros. signed a contract with the band. Its first album (1990) won a Grammy Award for best Mexican-American performance for the conjunto classic "Soy de San Luis," written by Santiago Jimenez Sr., the late legendary accordionist and father of Flaco.

Their next two albums also scored nominations and quickly attracted a loyal cross-cultural following. The band's latest album, due out on Reprise in late May, is Four Aces. It displays the trademark Tornado energy and variety that fans and critics attribute to the distinctive background of each member.

Probably best known is vocalist Fender, who became successful as El Bebop Kid during the 1950s. A decade later his real fame came as a country balladeer with million-sellers such as "Before the Last Teardrop Falls" and "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights." Meyers (keyboards) and Sahm (guitar), gave us pop hits "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover," courtesy of Sahm's '60s faux-British Invasion rock band, the Sir Douglas Quintet.

"We didn't get together before because the other guys were more into rock 'n' roll," said Jimenez. "Mira (look), I listened to blues. And as a child in elementary school I tuned to a radio station--KGNB--30 miles from here in a town called New Braunfels, Tex., that played German music--I loved those polkas, me entiendes? (do you understand me) And I also listened to country music on KONO, here in San Antonio."

During an interview last May, Fender talked a bit about Jimenez's role in the band.

"Flaco is more of a traditional accordionist taught by his daddy and he's more guidelined than we are because of the traditional aspect of the accordion, " said Fender. "But he still has some licks that other accordion players don't that make Flaco very individualistic."

Indeed, since first performing at age 8, Jimenez, who does not read music but plays by ear, has honed and transformed the traditional sound learned from his father and grandfather.

Jimenez's father is widely credited with creating and popularizing, in the 1930s, the conjunto sound--an accordion-based hybrid of Mexican Norteno-style music and polkas and waltzes imported by German and Czech settlers to the central Texas Hill Country. Later he added lyrics to the sprightly instrumental dance music and took it to the recording studio.

While preserving that framework, Flaco Jimenez has managed to make the Hohner Corona diatonic accordion also sound like a harmonica.

"It is like a harmonica on a bellows because it changes notes when you push or pull," he said. "But I like to experiment and try new things. So I decided to learn jazz and bluesy runs to change the traditional sound."

His innovation paid off. Jimenez's self-titled CD, which is on the new Arista/Texas label, is up for a Grammy for best Mexican-American performance. Country artists Raul Malo, Radney Foster, Lee Roy Parnell and Steve Fischell loaned their talents to make the first track, "Seguro Que Hell Yes" a kind of Spanglish version of "All My Rowdy Friends."

Most of the record is in Spanish, but the last cut, "Cat Walk," written and performed with Parnell, is a strong blues-driven number that scored a Grammy nomination in the country category for best instrumental performance. But you'll have to wait until Feb. 28 for the results.

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