"Take note of this return to the beauty of border primitivism. It's killer diller!" —Billy F Gibbons, ZZ Top
There's something powerful—and a little bit dangerous—happening at the border. It's something that has to be heard to be truly understood. It emanates from a place where cultures collide and all the rules are broken. Its heyday may have come and gone, but its spirit moves across the ether to this day. It's the eternal pirate AM signal, hailing from an uncharted no man's land where a handful of hucksters, carnival barkers, troubadours and outlaws pitch their virtual tent and set the airwaves ablaze with a churning stew that is equal parts music and mayhem, sex and redemption, medicine and madness.
The sounds you are hearing are the ghosts of border radio, better known as X radio to those whose memory is truly in tune. Do not attempt to adjust your set. Chances are, you won't even want to.
Los Super Seven, the rootsy Tex-Mex collective that emerged in the late 1990s, celebrates this edgy, no-holds-barred broadcast phenomenon in its debut Telarc release, Heard It on the X. Recorded in Austin, Texas, the album is a celebration of the freewheeling radio culture that took shape in the 1930s, when AM powerhouses like XERF, XEG, XERB and other American outlaw broadcasters along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande blasted a rich and mesmerizing mix of music, quack medicine, Bible-thumping, political stumping and other huckstering to all points north. Powered by as many as a million watts in some cases, X radio signals reached into nearly every corner of the U.S, and even as far away as Europe and Japan, well into the 1960s.
Produced by Charlie Sexton, Rick Clark and Dan Goodman, the dozen tracks on Heard It on the X are an accurate reflection of the bubbling, cross-cultural musical stew that characterized border radio: roadhouse blues, horn-driven R&B, mariachi, Texas country swing, jazz, rock and acoustic blues. Along for the ride are Calexico, stylish purveyors of the Southwestern groove, and a host of high-profile artists who share a passion for—and in some cases, a first-hand history with—the border radio mythos. Joining veteran Los Super Seven members, Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Raul Malo, Ruben Ramos and Rick Trevino are Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Delbert McClinton.
Raul Malo, backed by Calexico, opens the set with "The El Burro Song," a mariachi-soaked tale of love gone cold. The ironic opening line "My love has fallen and can't get up...," sets the tone for a track that's comical and bittersweet at the same time, while Rodney Crowell heads for the Border along with the legendary Flaco Jimenez on accordian and delivers a sterling performance of the little known but great Buddy Holly song "Learning The Game".
Joe Ely provides one of the many highlights, weighing in with an uptempo and driving rendition of fellow Texan Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance," a straight-ahead early Border rock blast that evokes that brief era in the mid-'60s when a two-and-half-minute pop single by an obscure but ambitious young rocker could set the world on fire. Delbert McClinton delivers a sterling rendition of "Talk To Me," the timeless Sunny and the Sunliners ballad (also popularized by Little Willie John) designed to generate romantic sparks on the dance floor—or wherever else young lovers might end up before the evening is over.
Further in, John Hiatt fires off a punchy rendition of Doug Sahm's "I'm Not That Kat (Anymore)," featuring former Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Myers, and Lone Star giant Lyle Lovett delivers a lighthearted ode to his native region with Bob Wills' "My Window Faces the South," a track that features Lloyd Maines on pedal steel and Redd Volkeart on lead guitar.
Ruben Ramos takes a funkier turn with a churning and gritty rendition of ZZ Top's "Heard It on the X," featuring Flaco Jimenez (formerly of the Texas Tornadoes) on accordion. Listen closely to this one and you'll catch a few tasty audio bites form the heyday of border radio.
The album ends with a metaphorical sentiment with Gatemouth Brown's performance of Blind Lemon Jefferson's classic "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"; its presence here imploring listeners to remember an era when the airwaves were wild and free and the unrestricted playlists allowed great American music to reach the world.
For those tuning in for the first time, Heard It on the X also includes a concise and illuminating history of border radio in the liner notes, penned by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, co-authors of Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves.
Heard It on the X makes no guarantees about medical or spiritual healing, supernatural insight, political enlightenment, or that extra burst of sexual energy that so many of us are looking for. But if you find the frequency, you're in for an ear-popping slice of radio from the edge – at a time and a place where anything goes everything is up for grabs.