What was the X? It was border radio, baby, smokin’ through the ether like a global blast of juke joint mojo. Holy-rollin’ rhythm rockin’ the universe. Goat glands! Crazy water! Screamin’ Preachers! Hillbillies and hellbillies . . . you could hear most anything on border radio, where every station (like all radio stations licensed in Mexico) started with the mystic letter X.
—Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford’s liner notes to Heard It on the X
Rock ‘n’ roll is plenty old enough to have its myths and golden ages, times when art supposedly outran the jackals of commerce, if even for a brief second. Maybe it’s the haze of nostalgia, or maybe commerce was just a little slower to co-opt back in the day—I’m too young to know—but these rumored moments of purity dot the rock timeline.
One that towers over many others is the universally shared experience of getting that lightning bolt from the radio. Whether we were a kid with a cheap transistor radio under the blankets, a teen on a night-time drive, or an adult sitting in the dark with a beer in hand for decompression, we’ve all had that moment when the planets aligned, the playlist was perfect, and we got the charge that sent us down the crooked music junkie path.
Back in the day, as the elders tell the tale, you could listen to radio that wasn’t focus-grouped to death, which threw folks like James Brown, Willie Dixon, Yes, Frank Zappa, or Johnny Cash back-to-back. Even so, those radio stations operated under watchful government eyes and restrictions. Not so with border AM radio, which wasn’t beholden to any U.S. regulations on broadcast power—the most powerful claimed to reach most of the continental U.S. and popular legend claims that you could hear the signal coursing through barbed wire fencing—or content.
If you were able to pick up these “outlaw” stations coming from just south of the Texas/Mexico border, then you got a wild, eclectic mix that included rock, norteno, country, Texas swing, and R&B that the mainstream American stations were afraid to play; where DJs like Wolfman Jack sounded like they’d lost their ever-lovin’ minds; where hucksters of every stripe sold elixirs and home remedies (one even claimed that he could raise the dead until people actually started sending him bodies); and where radio evangelists sold autographed pictures of Jesus.
Heard it on the X pays tribute to those lost stations and the varied artists who found airplay there. As tributes go, it delves more deeply than mere song selection, often tracking down some of the material’s original parties. John Hiatt’s rendition of Doug Sahm’s “I’m Not that Kat (Anymore)” includes former Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Myers. The pedal steel of Lloyd Maines and the lead guitar of Redd Volkaert (who both show up on scads of classic country tracks) propel Lyle Lovett’s nod to Bob Wills on “My Window Faces the South”. Original Sunny and the Sunliners keyboardist Arturo “Sauce” Gonzales graces Delbert McClinton’s take on the ballad “Talk to Me”. The West Side Horns, who were part of Sahm’s band in the ‘70s and ‘80s, also feature prominently. Add to that the rotating nature of Los Super Seven’s lineup (this time around, it’s folks like Raul Malo, Delbert McClinton, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, Rick Trevino, Ruben Ramos, Lyle Lovett, Freddy Fender, and many others), and it’s a fair bet Heard it on the X sounds nothing like the band’s two previous collaborations.
This time around, the disc’s two main backing bands include Calexico and Mariachi de la Luz for the south-of-the border cuts, and a band led by co-producer Charlie Sexton for the straightahead rock cuts (although most of the musicians apparently went wherever they were needed when recording started). Everything on Heard it on the X is quality, but a few highlights emerge: Calexico’s group launching into full mariachi flight on “Ojitos Traidores”, McClinton sounding positively charged on the sway of “Talk to Me” and the overload blues of “I Live the Life I Love”, Ruben Ramos’ staticy and ethereal cosmic boogie on the title track, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s lively “See that My Grave is Kept Clean”.
All in all, Heard it on the X offers a respectful (if perhaps too mannered and cleanly-produced at times) nod to many of these artists’ formative years. There’s little of the danger or rough-edges, though, that reportedly characterized the border radio scene—or maybe we listeners just aren’t as attuned to such things these days. What the album does do, however, is convey a warm, nostalgic mood via several different genres. Even in today’s genre-stratified radio wastelands, most people are used to hearing a little bit of country swing, a little bit of mariachi horns, a little bit of sweet soul here and there—it’s hard to comprehend, if you weren’t there, how radical it must have been to hear all of these things together. Still, it’s a lot of fun hearing these guys jump from style to style, and for the singers to pay back a little of the enjoyment they got so many years ago.
Now that a strong tribute exists to the music, though, the next step is for someone to compile recordings of those crazy preachers, snake oil artists, and assorted wildmen who also haunted the airwaves.