As the Country Music Assn. announced its latest round of awards this week--and the Mavericks won group of the year for the second year in a row--the country-music industry finds itself in the midst of a major self-evaluation.
Labels are folding and artists are losing contracts because, after several boom years, country record sales have dipped and country radio listenership is down nationally to the tune of 20%.
"As far as the Mavericks personally, sure, we're affected by it," bassist Robert Reynolds said this week, on the phone from Nashville. "The economics of our road show were affected greatly. . . . We noticed that projections for touring income and some expenses were thrown out off-kilter."
But, he added, "creatively, we don't worry about it."
The members of the hard-to-pigeonhole band "never felt like we were going to one well for our water. We feel like we've positioned ourselves so that a broad spectrum of listeners and music lovers are interested in our music. That's very important to us. We didn't ever want to rely solely on a fair-weather popular trend with country music."
The musical eclecticism of the Mavericks--who play in Newport Beach on Monday night--has been evident virtually from the time the band formed, in Florida in 1989.
Their sound incorporated the electric twang of Buck Owens, the soaring emotionalism of Patsy Cline and the heart-on-your-sleeve directness of Hank Williams.
Radio programmers were confounded early on because those country elements were tempered with Latin musical influences reflecting lead singer Raul Malo's Cuban heritage, not to mention the vintage rock 'n' roll, jazz, folk, R&B and pop standards that the Mavericks grew up listening to.
After an independently produced debut album was successful regionally, MCA Records signed the Mavericks and began promoting them enthusiastically. Even so, it took three albums before the band registered a bona-fide hit with "O What a Thrill,' which cracked Billboard's Top 20 country singles chart in 1994.
It was one of three singles that turned the "What a Crying Shame" album into the group's commercial breakthrough. The album remained on the chart for more than two years and picked up a string of music-industry awards and nominations.
The subsequent "Music for All Occasions" album has been on Billboard's country chart for a year. It further broadened the group's stylistic range with touches of uptown jazz, moody cocktail sounds and ebullient Tex-Mex.
"Hopefully college students will dig what we're doing and [so will] the lost rock 'n' rollers who don't know where to go," Reynolds said. "We hope they will continue to follow us, because we are not going to change."
Which isn't to say the Mavericks' next album, which they plan to start recording in the spring, will be a rehash of "Music for All Occasions" (which, Reynolds said, reflected their listening habits at the time. "All we were listening to on the tour bus was Ray Conniff and Dean Martin records. The last thing we wanted to do while we were out on tour was play the latest Top 10 country singles. It's not that we hated them; it's like doctors--they don't want to go perform surgery in their off hours.")
This time, he said, "we'd like to take a little more time recording . . . so that we can experiment a little more. I don't think we're going to do the Mavericks' version of 'Sgt. Pepper,' but I do think we'll explore some sounds we haven't done.
"We'd like to touch on some of the feelings that were evident in the 'From Hell to Paradise' period," he added, referring to an album the group released in 1992 that touched on social issues. The title song traced the legacy of Castro's takeover of Cuba, which Malo's family experienced firsthand; another track, "Mr. Jones," is about a man returning to his abandoned childhood home, a metaphor for the decay of the American dream.
Monday's gig at Twin Palms in Newport Beach will be a benefit for the Short Stature Foundation, a group in Irvine that supports dwarfs and their families. Proceeds will be used to reprint "Dwarfism: The Family & Professional Guide," a resource book that the foundation put out in 1994 and that has gone out of print.
The band was approached to participate by Manuel, a western clothing designer. "We have an almost family-like relationship with Manuel, so I would have done anything he asked us to," Reynolds said. "If it was a private party for him, I would be there.
"We're thrilled to get involved with any kind of benefit because it's a chance to give something back," he added, noting that he and his wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, participate in various charity events each year. "There's no way I could have what I have in my life and keep it all for myself. It's that simple."
* The Mavericks play Monday at Twin Palms, 630 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. 7 p.m. $250, benefits the Short Stature Foundation. (714) 857-4200.