Years ago while playing a gig in Washington with departed Tejano singing great Lydia Mendoza, Max Baca met Smithsonian Folkways' Dan Sheehy and pitched him a conjunto album.
Baca is a master of the bajo sexto, a “baritone-ish” 12-string guitar with both bass and guitar strings. “The bajo sexto has an up-front, attacking sound that people like,” says Baca, who began playing when he was 5. He learned from his father, who is credited with introducing “chicken-scratch” music to the Southwest.
“Anyway, Sheahy told me I needed a niche or some concept, but I didn't know what he meant,” Baca recalls. “Twenty years later, I came up with Los Texmaniacs.”
Traditional conjunto, the Spanish word for group, music was derived from German settlers in Texas at the turn of the century, he says, when locals adapted the oompah sound of the German accordion polkas and waltzes. In the 1920s the bajo sexto took the place of the left-handed bass accompaniment on the accordion, allowing the accordionist to play with more speed and feel, creating what's now known as the Tex-Mex sound. Baca's group takes the traditional style and adds rock sung in Spanish, jazz, and R&B — Texas blues elements similar to the famous Texas Tornados, with whom Baca toured for 13 years.
“Dan finally saw [Los Texmaniacs] at a folk festival and said, ‘Now you have a concept!'” Baca says. Their album, “Borders and Bailes,” won a Grammy last year.
It's fitting that Baca finally is being recognized for his own group, considering he's played with people such as the legendary Flaco JimAcnez, the Rolling Stones and John Cougar Mellencamp.
Producer Don Was asked Baca and JimAcnez to record with the Stones on their “Voodoo Lounge album.” It was a memorable session to say the least. “We got the call backstage at a gig and Flaco said ‘sure' and hung up. Then he looked at me and in that grizzled voice said, ‘Who are the Rolling Stones, man?'”
“We walked into the studio in Hollywood, at A&M studios. I didn't know what to expect. Me and Flaco were touring with a group called the Rock Angels from L.A. … Keith Richards was sitting in the corner, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. Mick Jagger was at the mixing board. So, we say ‘hey,' and I get my bajo out of my case and Keith Richards' eyes just opened up like, whoa. He stood up and walked right to me and was like, ‘Hey, what is that, man?'
“I told him it's a bajo sexto and he was like, ‘Wow, man, can I see it?'”
Baca was shaking. “This is Keith Richards, you know? He's smoking a cigarette and trying to play it, and it's tuned different, so he managed to get a few chords, but his ashes are spilling all over the instrument. I still have some there — I taped some there.”
He remembers what “Keef” said next. “‘Wow this is amazing, I want it.' He goes, ‘Name your price. What do you want for it, I'll buy it right now.' I didn't know, I asked Flaco … ten thousand, twenty thousand? I didn't know. But it was a personalized guitar from my dad. So I said, ‘Man, Mr. Richards I can't sell it to you, it's a gift from my father.' He goes, ‘Are you sure? Name your price, man, I don't care.'
“And I didn't sell it to him.”
The recording was a piece of cake. “They tricked us and did it in one take. Mick said we'll get some levels on you guys, and so we're running through the song one time. And Flaco says, ‘OK, let's take one.' Mick gets on the speaker and says, ‘Man, we got you guys already.' We were ready to really nail a track, but it was a first take, your spontaneous take. When you know that red button is not on, the real character comes out. And they got it.”
When he returned home, Baca told his dad the story about not selling the instrument. “And he goes [in a high voice]: ‘Pendejo!! You should've sold that thing. You could've bought the factory!'”