The Dragon's Roar

Jana Pendragon

February 1999

Cisco and the Reasons Why

Education is a wonderful thing. I highly recommend it. However, there is one area of popular American culture that seems to be lacking in the education department as far as the masses are concerned and that is Country and Western Music. C&W, hillbilly, honky tonk, Western Swing. Otherwise, how could you explain the misconception that pop stars like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain are really country music artists or that the puffed pastry, homogenized pop schlock being manufactured faster than McD.'s is frying up burgers is being marketed and sold as country music? Bull-oney. Not the real thing.

Country music, and all that that entails, bluegrass, mountain, folk, juke joint, rockabilly, Texas blues, gospel, Cajun, rock 'n' roll, cowboy and ecetera, is not a simple subject. Country music is the music of the people who came to America from all over the world. How that music evolved once it came into contact with other cultures is also part of country music. The Celts and the English, the Africans and the French and so many other peoples built the foundation of this music as they lived their lives in this new world.

The experiences of these people, who became Americans, is what propelled country music forward and allows it to remain distinct while detailing the history of so many. One aspect of this music is the Bakersfield Sound. Coming out of the San Joaquin Valley as the Great Depression, two World Wars and a Dust Bowl moved people west to the Golden State to find their dreams, the Bakersfield Sound emerged from places with names like Modesto, Fresno and, of course, Bakersfield. Working in the cotton fields and in the oil fields, eking out a living, these emigrants brought with them the music that fed their souls. Hank Williams, Sr., Lefty Frizzell and Woody Guthrie inspired Bakersfield Sound pioneers like the Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose, Bill Woods, Roy Nichols, Wynn Stewart and later, Bonnie and Buck Owens, Tommy Collins and Merle Haggard.

A lone voice in the wilderness, Dwight Yoakam sought out this Bakersfield Sound, and in 1986 made an impact upon the modern world that continues to reverberate 13 years later. Along with Rosie Flores, Chris Gaffney, Rick Shea, the Neon Angels and James Intveld, Yoakam, a native of Kentucky, gave new life to the edgy, raw Bakersfield Sound. A second resurgence came in the '90s when Scott Joss, the Derailers the Lonesome Strangers kept the momentum strong. But, by 1998 it was clear another artist, the first since Merle to be able to claim the San Joaquin as home, was coming into prominence.

Known simply as Cisco, a nickname he had worn with pride since his childhood in Fresno, this artist is about to kick up some dust. Honest to a fault, Cisco is all sharp edges and bite. Like those that came before him, he is made of the sweat and tears that created the fertile San Joaquin. The product of a family whose roots lie buried there, he reflects the past, present and the future of the Bakersfield Sound.

Living in Los Angeles, that town that lies south of Bakersfield, Cisco has released an independent CD, Wishing You Well From the Pink Motel. Of interest to an industry that has turned its back upon its pioneers, Cisco could be the next 'big thing.' But, for the moment, Cisco is the lesson being offered up as the subject of our continuing education in country music. He is real and he sure isn't a pop star...listen and learn.

It's 8 P.M. in Hollywood and night has fallen. Slowly the neon drenched streets come to life as a waxing moon begins its evening ride across the heavens. Cloaked in darkness, eyes downcast and walking atop the names of numerous movie stars and other entertainment notables, the growing numbers of people who populate Sunset Boulevard on any given night are seemingly in a hurry to get somewhere or anywhere. It is a big, impersonal city, a far cry and a world removed from the honky tonks and cowboy bars of the San Joaquin Valley that nurtured and gave birth to the Bakersfield Sound. It is that sound that dominates the almost underground C&W and American roots music community that continues to flourish in this harshest of cities in spite of a lack of support from both the music industry and radio.

Inside the very hip Topfuel Kawfeehouse, located on that same once-glamorous street of dreams, sits Cisco, one of Fresno, California's favorite sons and a high profile figure of L.A.'s tenacious country music scene. Ever since the summer release of his first project, Wishing You Well From the Pink Motel, things have been moving at a very rapid pace.

Almost in stark contrast to the impersonal, accelerated activity on the street that is framed by Hollywood's notorious past, Cisco sits calmly, sipping full strength coffee and smoking cigarettes that promise to deliver a solid nicotine kick. Undisturbed by both the metropolitan mess that surrounds him or political correctness in either word or deed, Cisco begins by stating up front, "I respect honesty." Pulling no punches, he makes it clear that the interview will have set limits, which he spells out in a firm yet cordial manner. "I love my family and they are very important to me. But, they are private people. What I'm all about is the music. And that's what people need to know. It is the music that got me here. That's why we are having this conversation." Adding, almost as an aside to his previous statement, he says thoughtfully, "I would rather give people something to think about than to simply spoon feed them meaningless information."

He's just come from sound check. Cisco and his band, the Reasons Why, have a gig in an hour and a half at the Mint in trendy West L.A., a place not usually associated with the honky tonk crowd. A&R reps from several major labels will be there, as they have been at most of the shows Cisco and his boys have played over the course of the last few months. But for now, Cisco is content to sit back in the counterculture luxury of his pal Ron's cool coffee pit stop and reflect back upon the long journey he has traveled since leaving his hometown so many years ago.

An intensely attractive individual with chiseled, classically handsome features and a perfectly coffered pompadour, Cisco possesses a personal style that is both unique and on a par with that which Elvis displayed to the world when he first hit the big time. And, Cisco is just as shocking to the weak-of-heart as the King was back in 1956. Sporting both earrings and tattoos with the kind of grace and dignity more often associated with the debonair, personal style of the Rat Pack, Cisco is clearly his own man.

He is also standing quite solidly at the doors behind which sit those few whose minions have enthralled country music for the past decade. And while he finds commenting on the dismal state of country radio and the Anti-Hank "too easy.... It's better to be silent and concern yourself with things you can actually do something about...," he is making so much noise that they can't afford to ignore him, another fact he does not dwell upon when discussing the commotion his CD is causing.

"I believe what we did is make a country record. But, at the same time the attention we have gotten has come out of New York and Los Angeles. And, God bless 'em, but we are all a little surprised by the amount of attention and from where it is coming."

Wishing You Well From the Pink Motel IS most assuredly a country record, more country than 99.9% of the junk on the country charts that is spewed forth daily by pop-schlock radio stations claiming to BE country. As for Nashville, "We sent the CD to Nashville and they responded with, 'Yeah, great...what do you want me to do with this?"

"Overall, we are following the advice Pete Anderson gave us concerning this first project. Pete said, and he speaks from experience, use the CD as a calling card. And we have and it's working!"

Produced by Mike Ness and Cisco intimate and sound wizard James Saez, Wishing You Well From the Pink Motel is as edgy as anything to ever come down the pike. Very much built around the songwriting talent of its principle, the project reflects a West Coast mentality which results in searing honesty and intense emotions without all the sugar coating that has diluted much of what is being passed off as contemporary country music. The recording process itself was brutal. A time of reflection and growth for Cisco and his band, guitarist Chris Lawrence, bassist Jeff Roberts and the amicably and recently departed "rock-star-touring-Europe," Bogie Bowles on drums. Giving credit where it is due, Cisco sings the praises of his band. He also gives a lot of credit to his producers for seeing the project through to completion and adds, "They know what it is like to be caught between genres and were a tremendous help to me as I worked towards remaining true to my own vision." Ness, who built his long-standing career around the punk music he makes with his own band, Social Distortion, became an anchor for Cisco after the two were introduced by Cisco's savvy manager, Gabrielle Geiselman. "If it wasn't for Mike Ness I wouldn't be the person I am today. I just have to thank Mike Ness for being there."

Cisco is also quick to credit the advice and support of country music heavy weights Michael Dumas, Dusty Wakeman and Pete Anderson, whose collective work with Dwight Yoakam continues to be precedent-setting. "These guys are it as far as West Coast country music is concerned. I'm thankful they took an interest in what I was trying to do and offered me the benefit of their experience and knowledge."

As for his musical talent, he states quite succinctly, his dark eyes flashing bright with obvious intelligence, "I believe you are either born doing it--the music--or not. I was born doing it." Continuing he says, "More specifically, the music was born in my heart and my head adopted the philosophy." Adding with the good humor he shares only with a few intimates, "It's all been a matter of getting the head to not screw up too badly along the way!"

Still, he admits, "My parents were both a huge influence upon me." Pausing, with a slight devilish grin forming on his face, he adds, "In Fresno we heard country music all the time while picking fruit." Laughing and moving on he softens just a touch, in a way that only someone you love deeply can soften you when they cross your mind. He recalls his mother when he says, "My mom loves--no, Mom adores Merle Haggard. And that's what she listened to when I was growing up and still does."

On the other hand, Cisco recalls being five years-old when his dad introduced him to other types of country music. "My dad used to play me records," the singer notes. "I remember the time when he put on "The Pilgrim Number 33" by Kris Kristofferson because he wanted to share it with me. Man, he put that on and then he watched me, he looked at me as if to say, 'Isn't that the greatest thing you've ever heard?' And it was! And, when I was 10 my dad took me to see Kristofferson. That primed me and my dad has a whole lot to do with me getting into music."

Adding that he listened to other artists like Bobby Gentry and Buck Owens, Cisco also found his way into rock 'n' roll and other popular forms of music. "Ricky Nelson, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent--it's all very real. And let's not forget Dean Martin! Dino was cool." And he remains a loyal Bob Dylan fan, adding, "I'm currently listening to Blonde On Blonde. Again. I tend to listen to one record at a time. And the youngest country singer I listen to is about 60, that would be Merle."

As for his hometown and the San Joaquin Valley, the well muscled artist notes, "I think that where you are born has a lot to do with the music you make. For me, the Central Valley is fertile with THAT sound. The smell of it! Everything about the Central Valley is cowboy."

It is also an environment that is wholly American. When asked about his heritage he responds simply, "I am an American. My parents are Americans and were born here and my grandparents are Americans and were born here. I'm an American."

His move out of Fresno took him all up and down the west coast. Landing in L.A. he quickly adapted, but never lost his connection to his hometown and the San Joaquin Valley. Commenting on his early experiences in the City of Angels he relates this story, "When I moved here to L.A. and I'd be walking around, people would say to me, 'Oh, I USED to wear cowboy boots.' And I'd wonder what they were trying to tell me. What does that mean? Are you trying to insult me by saying that?" Laughing it off he quickly adds, "We had our first pair of cowboy boots as soon as we could wear cowboy boots and not fall down!"

Expanding upon his experience of growing up in a place where a kid's first pair of "grown-up" shoes were more often than not cowboy boots he says, "It's not completely rural out there." Continuing he explains, "But, the tradition IS country. When I was growing up it didn't matter what else was going on--you could be driving around Fresno in a lowered Monte Carlo in the '70s, but you'd still be wearing cowboy boots!"

"I feel sorry in sense for anybody who grew up in the city. All they ever see is concrete and steel. And they figure THAT'S what they're about," observes Cisco. Displaying a strong spiritual side to his character he says, "Still, it doesn't matter where you come from as long as you can feel the earth and know that THAT is what it's all about. Now in my experience, the Central Valley has a wonderful element about it--it IS an actual living, breathing thing. It IS California, and California is always doing something a little different. We have traditionally been a little out of touch with the rest of the country. We are on the edge of the country after all and we seem to do things our own way." Adding thoughtfully, "There's no right or wrong way to it--whatever it is--but, I feel fortunate to have been born in the San Joaquin Valley."

But, what about his music? Another kid who found his way out of Fresno at the age of 16 is legendary country guitar master and the man who guided Merle Haggard towards a sound of his own, Roy Nichols. Well respected and revered for his history-making, string bending style, Nichols is pleased to see that the "old boys from Bakersfield are remembered." As for Cisco himself, Mr. Nichols notes, "He is a firecracker! I hear a little Buck and a little Merle in what he is doing and I like that. It is good to know this very special music, the Bakersfield Sound, is not forgotten in this day and age."

Another music insider who has watched Cisco evolve and come into his own is Dusty Wakeman. Wakeman is not only a player, performer, songwriter and engineer, but a producer whose work with Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores and Joy Lynn White have placed him at the top of the "I Want to Work With" list of west coast producers. With a
solid background in rock, pop and blues, Wakeman is infinitely qualified to comment. "I like Cisco's edge. He is sharp and getting sharper everyday. It is always a surprise to go see someone you have been in the studio with or played with after being away from whatever it is they are doing for a time and see improvement. Such is the case with Cisco. He's very good at what he is doing. His future is limitless."

Cisco himself explains his music this way, "There has always been a country base to what I do. I've always been attracted to old country songs. Even when I was playing in cover bands I took old country songs and vamped them up, doing what I could and teaching everybody else that country music is the root of everything they were playing--country and blues is the root. It somehow took that bad taste out of their mouths."

Another qualified party who sees Cisco and his music up close on a daily basis is Cisco's friend and lead guitarist/steel impresario, Chris Lawrence. With a strong pedigree and plenty of experience, this in-demand former Austin resident believes, "Cisco is what Waylon would be like today if he were just coming up. Cisco is an outlaw."

From the start, Cisco has been labeled a rebel, something he has never aspired to be. "'Rebel' is a cool word if you're a teenager. But, after that, you are pretty much just an ass hole," he offers.

However, being an outlaw is a whole different thing. "'Outlaw,' that seems to be a word that is coming back. I'm flattered that reviewers, and others, have attributed it to me because it's not so much about the individual as it is about the system. It is saying that 'the system' has become complaisant. Frankly, 'the system' is giving us nothing to think about. There are people out there who are not intentionally trying to, but who can't help but be what they are--outlaws."

With only moments to spare before he has to rush off into the night, Cisco notes that while the world is discovering him and this first project, "I'm already onto the second project. I've been writing some great new songs that have been getting a very positive response from live audiences. I've written one I'm especially proud of called "San Joaquin." That one is really special to me."

As for the future, it is looming in front of him and he has every intention of meeting it head on. Taking a final drag on a last cigarette, Cisco laughs out loud when quizzed about the reaction he and the band are getting from female fans. Already lauded as a "chick magnet band," the idea of panties and motel room keys being thrown on stage garners this response, "The panties I keep in a box, color sorted except for the big, cotton jobbers which I keep in a 55 gallon drum. Motel room keys? I prefer car keys."

It is only minutes later that Cisco steps onto the stage before a packed house. With a nod to Chris Lawrence and Jeff Roberts, and Yoakam drummer Jimmy Christie ready to provide the beat, Cisco whirls around to face his audience. All power and charisma, Cisco the performer looks them straight in the eye and says, "This ain't no rockabilly, this ain't no psychobilly...this here is REAL country music!" And so it is.

(*For more information regarding Cisco or his debut CD, Wishing You Well From the Pink Motel, contact the Cisco info line: 323-654-5856.)

Jana Pendragon can be reached at