Joe King Carrasco has traded his crown and cape for a cowboy hat and sparkly Lady of Guadalupe shirt, but he is still just as eccentric and entertaining as he was decades ago, when a particularly wild performance got him banned from Saturday Night Live.
Carrasco, who grew up in west Texas and fell deeply in love with Mexico and its music, is known as "the king of Tex-Mex rock and roll." He has been a charismatic bandleader for over 35 years, first with Joe King Carrasco & El Molino (which featured several future Tejano music legends), then Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns, with whom he recorded his most well-known song, "Party Weekend." He famously befriended Michael Jackson in the early '80s while they were recording in the same studio; Jackson sang back-up vocals on a Crowns song.
He's still a one-of-a-kind performer. At a recent show at Herman's Hideaway, Carrasco left the stage three times during a 45-minute set to circle the room, climb on chairs and pose for pictures with his adoring fans. He played his guitar on top of his head and cajoled various audience members into holding the mic for him while his manager followed a few steps behind with a flashlight as a makeshift spotlight.
The leaps from the stage are more than just a gimmick. Even before the show started, Carrasco left his sound check to introduce himself to the crowd. He's a people person -- the kind of guy that pulls you in for a kiss on the cheek when you go to shake his hand, who would rather learn about you than tell you about himself and never runs out of things to say. Even off stage, he's mesmerizing.
Carrasco now spends part of his time living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with his three Jack Russell terriers--Peanut, PeeWee (a blind diabetic) and Anna. He visited the city in 2006 for a show and decided not to leave. He owns a club there called Nacho Daddy ("where it's always a party-party weekend," he says knowingly), and he tests out new music there when he's not on tour.
His passion for music is matched only by his love of dogs - when he hits the road, his terriers come along. He started a non-profit in Puerto Vallarta called Viva Perros, which raises money to help homeless and abused dogs around the world.
Carrasco has had dogs his whole life, though he says he never went out of his way to get them. He's had Anna for eighteen years - he says she's "his everything." But her kidneys are starting to fail, and she doesn't have much longer to live. He removes his cowboy hat when he talks about it.
Anna sits in the front seat of the tour van while Carrasco is on stage, and he goes out to check on her every chance he gets. When his manager walks in before the set with some equipment, the first thing he does is ask about Anna.
"When you get a dog, it's like a marriage. 'Til death do we part," Carrasco says. "It's up to me to make sure Anna has a really good rest of her life."
So Carrasco's commitment to his non-profit is deeply personal. He recorded an album for the cause, called Concierto Para Los Perros, the proceeds from which all go to Viva Perros. So do the profits from another of his bizarre ventures -- selling Mexican bags.
The bags are large and made from a plastic mesh. In Mexico, they're commonly used for shopping. When Carrasco was seventeen, he says, the coolest guy he knew in Mexico carried one of the bags around, so Carrasco started carrying one, too. Now, he never goes anywhere without his. He uses it for his groceries, his beach gear, his socks in his suitcase. About ten years ago, he started making his own, decorated with various things related to the non-profit or his music. He talked about them on stage at Herman's, telling the audience they'll be great when plastic bags are banned in Colorado. They're popular merchandise; Carrasco suggests this is "because they're cool," but it probably has more to do with the seller. Joe King Carrasco is the coolest guy in most rooms he enters. He carries a Mexican bag around, and plenty of people decide they want to start carrying one, too.
He and his touring party have also been shooting a series of strange, hilarious videos from the road advertising the bags. In one, Carrasco holds a mock press conference in front of an empty restaurant patio (with Anna at his side). In the most recent, two of his band mates wear them on their heads, standing near a horse next to some two-lane highway. "Border patrol agents drive by and don't even recognize us!" says a musician with a Mexican tote bag on his head. "Cross the river with me and my Joe King bag!"
The ads go on his YouTube channel along with his newest music videos. Most of those comprise a series of handheld camera shots of Carrasco playing guitar in the wilderness (on the side of the road) as his dogs wander in and out of view.
Carrasco's road trips have always been productive. He says he does his best writing as he drives across the Mexican desert. He always has his tape recorder handy (he prefers cassettes to risky digital recordings), and by the time he gets to a concert location, he has tapes of new song ideas. He keeps them all.
Carrasco loves traveling the U.S. and Mexico with his tape recorder and his dogs, going from venue to venue to share his songs. "Maybe I'm not as wild as I used to be, but I'm still Joe King," he says. "The key is to just keep moving. I just gotta keep moving."• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS •
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