The second Texas State Musician scheduled for this month’s RiverSounds concert series performs Thursday night and in the minds of many of his longtime fans, he’s been a Texas state musician for some time.
Temple native Little Joe Hernandez, one of Tejano music’s superstars, comes to Waco with his eight-piece La Familia band at 8 p.m. Thursday at McLennan Community College’s Bosque River Stage. It’s the first concert back at the Bosque River Stage after flooding from high river levels forced the series indoors to the Ball Performing Arts Center.
It’s a return for Hernandez, too, as he and his band headlined a Brazos Nights concert last year.
Hernandez, 78, was named Texas State Musician for 2019 this spring, with Austin musician and Waco native Emily Gimble the Texas State Musician for 2020. Gimble played a RiverSounds show earlier this month with her father Dick and a seasoned Western swing backing band.
It’s been 60 years since Hernandez took over his cousin David Coronado’s band the Latinaires, taking the Little Joe nickname he’d been tagged with and making it one of the best known in Tejano music.
The history of that six decades and what led to it is fresh on Hernandez’s mind these days, thanks to a biography in the works by Emma Gonzalez, author of the prize-winning “Field Mice.”
Working with her on the book has provided him a rare chance to look back, he said in a phone interview from his Temple home. “I seldom stop to think about the past. I’m always moving forward to the future,” he said. “But there’s some pretty amazing stuff that’s happened in my life. It’s been such an incredible journey.”
Central Texas roots
Hernandez was one of 13 children born to a poor couple that worked the fields outside of Temple. His family was the only Hispanic family in a black neighborhood and the blend of music he heard growing up made it only natural that he’d be comfortable with what would evolve into Tejano music: a mix of rock ’n’ roll, blues and pop with Mexican conjunto, ranchera and norteño, sung in English and Spanish.
By the 1970s, Hernandez’s popularity had him and his band, now called La Familia and not the Latinaires, riding high on what was called La Onda Chicana, the Chicano Wave. Proud of his heritage, the Temple musician also became active in Mexican-American political and cultural causes, but always saw music as a unifying force.
It also made him an international star and a five-time Grammy Award winner for such albums as “Recuerdos,” “16 de Septiembre,” “Chicanismo” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”
“(Music) has taken me to Europe, Japan and all over the United States,” he said. “I’ve been a lot happier than sad my whole life. And sorrow . . . only amplifies the high times.”
Even in his 70s, Hernandez can charm a crowd, though he admits his audiences are becoming more silver-haired, too. A recent El Paso concert drew more than 5,000 people and the energy he felt was palpable.
“There was so much love in that crowd. Of course, the majority seems to be old people like myself,” he laughed.
Still, he pointed to it as an example of how music can provide a common ground for community. Even as anti-immigration sentiment has become louder in recent years, Hernandez tries to use his music and experience to make his listeners more aware of their common humanity. He hasn’t forgotten the bite of poverty nor the help of others to ease it.
He recalled a time when his father was in prison and the family received a weekly package of food to help make ends meet. “It was something. We all appreciated it. We needed it,” Hernandez said.
Then there was the fundraiser in Los Angeles that he held some years ago to help a brother who had daughters that had been seriously injured in a car accident on Interstate 35 and airlifted to a hospital. Old friends, casual acquaintances and strangers alike showed up to help, he said. “What was important was they cared,” he recalled.
He paused a recent show for a moment of silence for migrant children separated from parents at the United States border. “My mother died 20 years ago and I still miss her,” he said. “Can you imagine what it feels like for those kids taken from their mothers? We all need each other. There’s more than enough to share. The older I get, the more I understand . . . and the greater this feeling is.”