The 10 Best Songs of Ramon Ayala, Conjunto Norteño Legend and Accordion Hero
"Imagine starting a genre and being able to stay relevant nearly 40 years later without missing a beat," as I put it back in 2007. "Mix Jelly Roll Morton with Johnny Cash, and you have Ayala." The genre, of course, is conjunto norteño (the one with the accordion, for clueless gabachos), and almost all of his songs (whether in his solo act backed by Los Bravos del Norte or alongside Cornelio Reyna in their pioneering group Los Relámpagos del Norte--the Lightning Bolts of the North, the greatest group name EVER) are standards, played incessantly by Mexicans and covered by contemporaries like a previous generation did to the songs of Irving Berlin.
I could've easily done the 20 best songs, but top 10 lists are more fun! Behold, then, my choices...
10. "Cuando Yo Era Un Jovencito"
Most of Ayala's fans might scratch their heads at this choice, but this remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Cotton Fields" (itself, a remake of Leadbelly's original) shows Ayala's genius and ties him directly to the borderlands of Texas where he grew up and originally became famous. Out there, exchanges of ideas across culture don't have the same xenophobic nastiness it does here in California, which is the reason why Polish and Czech immigrants could transmit their polkas to the Mexis up there, and the Mexis assimilated it easily. Treat this song, then, as a testament to Ayala's ease jumping across borders (whether physical, musical, or cultural), and a great rollick of a smile. And if you think this is a bizarre song for a Mexican to cover, don't forget Ayala also covered "Things" by Bobby Darin.
9. "El Federal de Caminos"
So you know how people are starting to compose corridos in honor of Christopher Dorner? That's what Mexicans do: write songs that chronicle the tales of bad men, and Ayala performed one of the most famous examples with "The Highway Patrolman," the true tale of a federal gunned down by bad men in Zacatecas. This is one of the hardest-charging songs in Ayala's canon, and it's so badass you still hear men blast it while driving down Bristol.
8. "La Casa de Madera"
If conjunto norteño singers aren't praising men, whether good or bad, or singing of love (wait for it...), then they're praising the pastoral life (just check out the picture above that goes with "Federal de Caminos," where Los Bravos del Norte are leaning on the branch of a tree). This is Ayala's second-most famous paean to the rancho life, singing about the simple "House of Wood" that stands as a metaphor for love. Quick ¡Ask a Mexican!: why do all Mexican music videos have to have a blonde in them?