As kids growing up in the fifties, we tried to copy anything that inspired us from the radio, both in Spanish and English. We would harmonize on Hank Williams songs, Everly Brothers songs, or soap jingles. My father brought home a lot of records from Mexico. Of these, our favorites were the mysterious huapangos, sung by the Trio Calaveras and Trio Tariacuri. These songs from the mountains deep in Mexico had strange indigenous rhythms and vocal lines that broke into a thrilling falsetto. We also loved the urban smoothness of the jazz-based Trio Los Panchos.
I spent hours listening to the great ranchera singer Lola Beltrán. She influenced my singing style more than anyone. "Lola the Great" stood for Mexico as Edith Piaf stood for France. She had an enormous, richly colored voice that was loaded with drama, intrigue, and bitter sorrow. Although she was a belter who sang Mexican country music, her voice had the same dramatic and emotional elements as the opera singer Maria Callas.
I listened to Callas with my grandmother. I read later in a Callas biography that she loved to sing along to the Mexican radio stations during trips she made to appear at the Dallas Opera. Lola was the most played female singer on Mexican radio. I am sure Callas loved her too.
When commercial folk music began to play on the radio in my early teens, we really paid attention. Here was something that sounded much like the Mexican traditional music on which we had been raised. Like the rancheras and huapangos, it was drawn from an earlier, agrarian life, was accompanied by acoustic instruments, and had rich, natural-sounding harmonies.
Peter, Suzy, and I hovered over recordings by popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia. We would learn their songs and harmonies and then rearrange them for our own configuration of voices. I would cover the sopranoalto registers, Suzy the alto-tenor, and Pete would sing tenorbaritone. Years later, my younger brother, Mike, would sing whatever extra part was needed, from bass to high tenor. But he was still little then, so we formed a trio and called ourselves the New Union Ramblers. At the time, Suzy worked at the Union Bank, and I had an Arhoolie recording of the Hackberry Ramblers and thought ramblers sounded folky. We tried our best not to sound too treacly but were not always successful. We were having a lot of fun and sometimes played at the local folk clubs.
Bobby Kimmel, soon to become my Stone Poneys bandmate, played bass. He was short, with the dark, bearded look of the Beat Generation, and prone to quoting lengthy selections from his philosophy heroes, who ranged from the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti to Lord Buckley, the hipster comic of the 1940s and 1950s. Richard Saltus, a preppy, unusually tall and skinny schoolmate of mine, leaned over us playing the banjo and cracking us up with his quirky humor. He was unusually bright, years later becoming a science writer for the Boston Globe. He introduced me to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Blue Sky Boys. Again, their mountain harmonies reminded me of the Mexican trios and the huapangos I loved. They dealt with the same issues: the grueling work of living off the land and the treachery of misplaced affection.
My brother Pete went to work for the Tucson Police Department while he took his master's degree in government at the University of Arizona. He eventually became the chief of police, but at the time, the department didn't think too highly of my brother hanging around beatnik folk music clubs. My sister had three children and less time for music, so I began to play small venues on my own, sometimes with my cousin Bill Ronstadt accompanying me on the guitar. Bill, the most accomplished guitar player in our family, was a serious student of Brazilian music, but when he played with me, we did simpler American folk songs. The professional demands were not great. I could play a set of four or five songs, and Bill would fill in with Brazilian pieces. We occasionally got paid but felt lucky to get the experience of being in front of an audience.