My favorite place for music was a pachanga. This was a Mexican rancher's most cherished form of entertainment. It was a picnic that took up an entire afternoon and evening and could last until midnight. Preparations would begin in the late afternoon, to avoid the worst heat of the day. A good site was chosen under a grove of cottonwood trees so there would be cool shade and a nice breeze. Someone would build a mesquite fire and grill steaks or pork ribs or whatever the local ranches provided. There would be huge, paper-thin Sonoran wheat tortillas being made by hand and baked on a comal, which is a smooth, flat piece of iron laid over the fire. Fragrant coffee beans were roasted over the fire too, then brewed and served with refried beans, white ranch cheese, homemade tamales, roasted corn, nopalitos, calabasitas, and a variety of chiles. Around sunset, someone would uncork a bottle of tequila or the local bacanora, and people would start tuning up the guitars.
The stars blinked on, and the songs sailed into the night. Mostly in Spanish, they were yearning, beautiful songs of love and desperation and despair. My father would often sing the lead, and then aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends joined in with whatever words they knew or whatever harmonies they could invent. The music never felt like a performance, it simply ebbed and flowed with the rest of the conversation. We children weren't sent off to bed but would crawl into someone's lap and fall asleep to the comforting sound of family voices singing and murmuring in two languages.
My brother Peter's beautiful boy soprano voice landed him a soloist's position in the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, which at the time had a national reputation. They would travel by private bus giving concerts throughout the country and return covered in aw-shucks glory. On the nights of their homecoming concerts, my father, mother, sister, and I would troop down to the Temple of Music and Art—a beautiful, small theater in downtown Tucson, modeled after the Pasadena Playhouse—and watch them sing. Our whole family would hold its collective breath while my brother emitted the eerie and mysterious high sounds that only prepubescent boy sopranos can make, praying that he wouldn't be sharp or flat. He was seldom either, but when he strayed, he was more likely to be sharp. I have the identical tendency. We all knew from hearing him practice at home which passages were likely to derail him, and we white-knuckled through them as we listened. The boys were dressed in cowboy hats, silk neckerchiefs, satin-fringed and pearl-snapped cowboy shirts in desert sunset colors (the colors being allotted to sopranos and altos accordingly), bell-bottomed "frontier pants" with rodeo belt buckles, and cowboy boots. The stage was dressed with an artificial campfire, a starry-night backdrop, some saguaro cactus silhouettes, and a beautiful full moon projected from the back of the hall. Now, this was some serious production value, in my six year-old opinion! It had a mesmerizing effect on the audience, and everyone listened in hushed and rapturous delight.
Whenever I imagined myself singing for the public, it would be like that: I would stand on a proscenium stage with a real curtain that opened and closed, and sing those beautiful, high, pure notes and give the audience chills. After all, I was a soprano too and could sing just as high as my brother. I wanted to sing like him. I can remember sitting at the piano. My sister was playing and my brother was singing something and I said, "I want to try that." My sister turned to my brother and said, "Think we got a soprano here." I was about four. I remember thinking, "I'm a singer, that's what I do." It was like I had become validated somehow, my existence affirmed. I was so pleased to know that that was what I was in life: I was a soprano. The idea of being famous or a star would not have been in my consciousness. I just wanted to sing and be able to make the sounds I had heard that had thrilled me so. And then one day, when I was fourteen, my sister and brother were singing a folk song called "The Columbus Stockade Blues." I came walking around the corner and threw in the high harmony. I did it in my chest voice and I surprised myself. Before that, I had tried to sing only in a high falsetto tone, and it didn't have any power. Because my brother's voice was high and his performances were so central to our early family life, his sound was the first I ever tried to copy. All artists copy. We try as hard as we can to sound just like someone we admire; someone who evokes a strong feeling that we would like to emulate. The best part is, no matter how hard we try to copy, we wind up sounding like a version of ourselves.
The elements of voice and style are braided together like twine, consisting of these attempts to copy other artists, or an instrument, or even the sound of a bird or passing train. Added to these characteristics are emotions and thoughts that register as various vocal quirks, like hiccups, sighs, growls, warbles—a practically limitless assortment of choices. Most of these choices are made at the speed of sound on a subconscious level, or one would be completely overwhelmed by the task. When I bend my ear to a singer's performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat "King" Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponselle in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse.
The regional accent one speaks also affects rhythms and phrasing, so someone who is "copying" has to import the accent too. For me, it helps to know the vocal bloodlines in order to decode the phrasing of a song. I once sang a Tom Petty song called "The Waiting," which has an intricate rhythm scheme for fitting lyrics into the music. Petty, an artist I admire, came along later than many classic rockers and so was able to absorb their elements into his writing and singing style. As I studied his vocal performance, it broke down something like this: Tom with his Florida accent was copying Mick Jagger with his British accent, who was copying Robert Johnson from the Mississippi Delta. And in another part of the same song, Tom was copying Roger McGuinn, who was copying Bob Dylan, who copied Woody Guthrie, who was in turn copying someone lost to our generation. These influences can show up in a whole line or just a word, or even the way that part of a word is attacked. As voices age, the vocal twine can become unraveled, and one hears the seams and joins of the laminated sound that has come to be recognized as that artist's style. It can collapse into a heap of ticks and quirks.