JUNE 1st, 2020 – Evelyn Rubio knows what she’s up against. But by now the singer is used to standing out as probably the most prominent Latina in Houston’s blues scene.
Who also plays the saxophone, by the way.
“I think it’s one of the biggest challenges for me, as a Latin trying to get into American music,” she admits. “Most of all the blues, [which has] a very strong history for black people. But if that’s what my heart feels, what can I do?”
A performer since childhood, Rubio honed her diverse repertoire in her native Mexico City. She fronted a high-society orchestra fluent in a variety of styles — “mariachi, cumbia, a jazz tune, even opera,” she notes. Later on, she appeared as Mary Magdalene in a Canadian production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Since moving to Houston in 2006, Rubio has been a regular on the local blues circuit that includes The Big Easy near Rice Village, Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar in the Heights, and the Green Oaks Tavern in Humble. Her latest album, “Crossing Borders,” ambitiously reconciles these two sides of her musical personality.
The upbeat “Just Like a Drug” flirts with Miami Sound Machine and Santana’s “Smooth”; the glossy ballad “I Can’t Understand” pleads for tolerance. Several songs, including the smoldering “Still On Your Side” and jazzy shuffle “Cruel,” come from Nashville pros Kevin Brandt and/or Bobby Terry, who have written for the amped-up country acts Travis Tritt and Montgomery Gentry, among others.
Elsewhere, locals The Mighty Orq (guitar) and Sonny Boy Terry (harmonica) join Rubio on a twangy cover of the classic bolero “Besame Mucho.” Spanish-language versions of three “Borders” songs — which Rubio translated herself — push the album past the one-hour mark.
“I’m very conscious that this album is not just a blues album,” she says. “It’s really not; I understand that.”
But, Rubio adds, “I think it’s fine. I think if you know how to put it together, it’s OK to show people the different things that you have inside.”
Two years in the making
In total, “Borders” represents more than two years of work, piecing together sessions recorded in Houston, Austin, and Los Angeles. High-powered guests include Lone Star six-string whiz David Grissom and Josh Sklair and Etta James’ longtime guitarist. Tying the project together was producer Larry Fulcher, the Houston native and longtime Taj Mahal sideman. Fulcher’s group the Phantom Blues Band also backs Rubio on several songs.
She admits was nervous about approaching the producer, a Grammy winner for his work on Taj Mahal’s 2000 live album “Shoutin’ in Key,” but the two got along famously, Rubio says.
“Once you start to talk to him and he understands you a little bit he’s such a sweet man, and very, very easy to work with,” she says. “I was able to talk about all my ideas without hesitation. He’s very patient [and] open to listen to every little thing I said, and then he just made it come true.”
Two particularly poignant standouts on the album are “Border Town” and “Port Isabel.” The former is a dusky, slow-burning blues featuring Kenny Cordray, the revered Houston session guitarist who was tragically shot to death in May 2017; the song was completed just weeks before.
Shot in Brownsville, Rubio’s recent video for the song depicts colorful folklórico dancers alongside scenes of razor wire and impoverished families — she wanted to show “the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugly” of life on the border, Rubio says.
“Port Isabel,” meanwhile, is a sultry, romantic instrumental named after the small town on the southern tip of South Padre Island. Known for its historic lighthouse, it also has special significance for Rubio and her husband, producer David Smith: it’s the first place in the U.S. they came as a couple. She’d been carrying the tune around in her head ever since, until finally recording it for “Borders.”
“This is a fishing town, and somebody caught me there,” says Rubio. “I just fell in love with the place, and of course with him.”
Refuge in Port Isabel
Rubio actually met her husband when he was on vacation to Playa del Carmen, the Mexican beach town near Cancún, and saw her band, Chivo Azul, play. In those days, she would perform six months out of the year in Mexico City and six months with Chivo Azul.
“I moved from Mexico City just to be able to play blues [there],” says Rubio. “That shows you how much I love the blues.”
After she met Smith, “he came back the next month, and the next month, and the next month, and now he’s my husband,” Rubio laughs.
Lately the couple and their 18-year-old adopted son have been riding out the pandemic at their house in Port Isabel. The beach helps relieve Rubio’s frustration with not being able to perform live.
“It just gives you a certain kind of peace that…I’m patient,” she says. “I have patience. I understand the situation, and I will wait for the right moment to go ahead and do it.”
For “Crossing Borders,” Rubio wanted a leaner sound than her previous albums, including 2015’s “Hombres,” big-band affairs she made with the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra. Beloved Houston bluesman Owens, a trumpeter and B.B. King’s former bandleader, passed away in 2008, shortly after signing Rubio to his label, Sawdust Alley Records. She also made 2013’s “No News Just the Blues” with another King bandleader turned local blues stalwart, James “Boogaloo” Bolden.
“He’s another very easy, sweet man,” Rubio says of Bolden. “I think the thing is that [both men] have been so many years in this business, they have worked with the big, big names, at least in the blues world, that they weren’t surprised about nothing. They don’t have to pretend nothing.”
Rubio discovered her affinity for saxophone when her teacher back in Mexico convinced her to switch over from guitar; she now plays soprano, alto and tenor. During her early days in Houston, she made enough of an impression at various jam sessions that the other musicians tended to forget, or ignore, that she also sang.
Rubio hopes “Crossing Borders” will set the record straight for good.
“For years a lot of people invited me to the stage, but they just [thought] about the sax,” she says. “For a long time I didn’t have too much chance to sing, and so they didn’t really know that I’m a singer. But fortunately now we are at the right place.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.