Prodigal Hijos

Los Lonely Boys have gone from being outcasts to the kings of Texas rock and roll.

Texas music history swarms with stories of Texans who went to Nashville dreaming of fame and fortune. The most celebrated of these tales hinge on spectacular failure, followed by a return to Texas, some regrouping back on home turf, and eventual triumph. The most famous of them come from the Outlaw movement. Willie and Waylon failed when they tried to storm Music City; it was only when they started lobbing their musical bombshells from Austin that the walls of Music City crumbled.

San Angelo's Los Lonely Boys followed a similar trajectory, though they spent much of their childhoods in Nashville. And despite the fact that they've been musically adopted by the Red Headed Stranger himself, the Boys are not a country act -- at least not anymore. What they are now is the future of rootsy Texas rock and roll, having progressed rapidly from being an opening act in dodgy Texas clubs to a national headliner and a co-star at this year's Farm Aid. On the strength of the ballad "Heaven," the band hit the Top 10 this summer, almost a year after the re-release of its self-titled debut. The twenty-something Garza brothers -- guitarist Henry, bassist JoJo and drummer "Ringo" Jr. -- deliver polished blues, rock, country and various Mexican-tinged sounds, delivered in tight Spanish and English blood harmonies, all on top of a glittering musicianship that sounds as if it were coming from players at least a decade older.

Then there are their old-school stage antics. The Boys close every show with a number worthy of T-Bone Walker in his prime. Henry and JoJo play their guitars behind their heads while doing synchronized, West-Texas-vato-meets-Chuck-Berry variations on the Charleston. Then they play using only their fretting hands, throwing their guitars in the air and catching them one-handed.

Not as Lonely as they once were: JoJo (from left), 
Henry and Ringo Garza are Los Lonely Boys.
Mick Rock
Not as Lonely as they once were: JoJo (from left), Henry and Ringo Garza are Los Lonely Boys.

They learned it all from their father, "Ringo" Sr. In 1990, the elder Garza, who once played with his seven brothers in a conjunto group called the Backroads, took his family to Nashville with him to serve as his backing band. He had dreams of country stardom, but what the family found instead was alienation, tragedy, and the loneliness that perhaps gave the band its name.

"We stood out," Henry Garza says into his cell phone from the wide-open spaces of a San Angelo Wal-Mart. "Me and my brother JoJo were the only two Mexicans in our whole school, and so was my little brother, in elementary school. We would have people come up to us and say, 'What are you?' and we would say, 'Well, what are you? We're just human like you!' They would just freak out. They thought we were Indians or Arabs or Iranians or something."

Generally, the boys had to put up with the ribbing at school -- and with the handicap of being bone tired. The life of a working musician, which is tough for an adult, is much more so for schoolkids. "We were kids still in school and playing 24 hours," Henry says. "We would get off school and then go do our homework in the bar right across the street and then play there until one or two in the morning and then grab a few hours' sleep before we went to school. Then the same thing repeated, man, over and over."

These gigs were far from the bright lights of Music Row. The family played one-room beer joints among the no-tell motels, pawnshops and liquor stores that line the city's shadiest thoroughfare. "We lived and played in the roughest parts of Nashville," Garza remembers. "We would walk in to play a country bar, and you've got these three little Mexican boys and their Mexican father coming in to do country music, and people were like, 'Whoa! What's going on here?'"

As the elder Garza's dreams faded before the befuddled Nashvillians, he started funneling his aspirations through his talented sons. "When we were old enough, he took us out there, and we tried to do it, too, man," Henry says. "We improved musically, but as far as getting anywhere, I can't really say that Nashville was the place."

After his son, "Mijo" Garza, died from sudden infant death syndrome, Henry wanted to make a fresh start in Texas: "I wanted my daughter to grow up in a good place. I thought, 'It's time to move on. I gotta go do my thing now.' I grew up in San Angelo, so we came back here. We had to see the big blue. Up there, all those mountains were getting in the way of my scenery," he says, laughing.

People in Nashville told them they would be sorry. "We were told we couldn't do it from here. And I said, ŒNah, I don't believe that, man. I think we can be home and take care of our families and do what we need to do, wherever, however,'" Henry says.

And so far, they have -- rather triumphantly. They now have a platinum record under their belts, and they practically live on the road.

"Baby, how many shows do I play a year?" Henry asks his wife. "A lot, dude," he says, turning his attention back to the interview. "Let's just say a lot."

 
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