Fans of Tejano music know all about Emilio Navaira.
They know him from his earliest professional days, in the wee ‘80s, as lead voice for David Lee Garza y Los Musicales. They followed him when he left Garza to form his own band, Emilio Navaira y Grupo Rio, in 1989.
He received Grammy nominations for that year’s “Emilio y Rio” and for 1992’s “Unsung Highways.” He has been named top male vocalist for seven successive years at the Tejano Music Awards in his hometown of San Antonio.
His award-winning female counterpart, the late Selena, helped bring Tejano - the dance-demanding hybrid of Mexican “conjunto,” German polka and Texas rock - to the world.
Although Emilio, 33, is the undisputed king of Tejano, his fans on both sides of the Rio Grande also know there’s more than a little country in the man.
“Hey, man,” the always-upbeat singer says during a phone call from San Antonio, “it’s not really that big a jump from Tejano to country, either for me or the music itself.
“I mean, the two styles are related - songs about your girlfriend leaving you, broken hearts, ballads, two-steps, waltzes. It’s all part of both.”
Emilio - he dropped his surname in 1994 - feels very much the son of both cultures, and his life’s resume reflects that.
He was reared in a blue-collar household, and radio time in the Navaira abode was split mostly between Latin and country music, with young Emilio checking out rock stations as well.
“I listened to Bob Wills and Van Halen, the Eagles and George Strait, ZZ Top and, of course, (Tejano trailblazer) Little Joe y La Familia,” he says. “I like it all, and I want to sing it all.”
After spending three years studying music on a voice scholarship at Southwest Texas State University, Emilio determined that he’d rather do than teach, and he quickly hooked up with Garza. After that experience, and the subsequent seven years leading Rio, with whom he produced a half-dozen albums for his label, EMI-Latin, Emilio wanted more.
Stateside record execs, noting the growing popularity of Tejano and the 200,000 copies each of his mostly Spanish-language albums sold, came up with a marketing package.
“Life Is Good” is what the combined efforts of major label Capitol-Nashville and EMI-Latin has spawned.
It’s the name of his first country CD and the current logo of the beer company sponsoring his first-class tour. While the slick sell has put off some music purists, Emilio is confident the music will win over skeptics.
“Life Is Good” is an excellent inaugural effort. From the first-single ballad “It’s Not the End of the World” (with a Spanish-language version, “No El Es Fin Del Mundo” included) to his latest hit, the shuffle-happy “Even If I Tried,” Emilio proves he’s no mere marketing tool.
“I want to do both (Tejano and country), and why shouldn’t I?” the powerful-voiced singer says.
“I hear what some are saying about the sponsor thing, but I’m not the first one to have this kind of backing. Besides, some folks who have given me heat have come to hear me, and they’ve come up to me after and said, ‘I take it back.’ “
He acknowledges he now has a special impetus to see his dream fulfilled.
“Both Selena and I wanted to spread the word (about Tejano) and branch out, too,” he says quietly.
“We used to pass each other on the road for 10 years, when we’d play the same clubs in Texas, and we played together, too.
“People say it’s up to me now. All I can do is do my best, man, whether it’s Tejano or country. I’ll work hard, but I’ll always have fun. I love music, and I get to play it for a living. Life is good.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.