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Robert Ray puts a Tex-Mex spin on country music

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/11/2020 By Joey Guerra, Staff writer

Robert Ray learned how to sing in high school. And his vocal coach was the king of country music.

“I was living in Alice and going to school in Corpus. It’s about a 45-minute drive. Every day I would plug in my phone and put on George Strait tracks,” Ray says. He’s released a pair of EPs and several singles to solid success in Texas.

“That’s how I would practice my singing, the way his voice cracked, I would just try to sing along with him.”

Ray even put on his best impersonation for “Can’t Play Strait,” a 2016 song that mentioned several of the country icon’s hits. He learned how to play guitar in high school, inspired by ‘80s and ‘90s country music.

There were other influences, too. Ray, a seventh generation Texan, grew up surrounded by Tejano music. The regional sound combined traditional elements with pop influences and was popularized worldwide by Selena and La Mafia in the ‘90s.

“Any dances that we’d go to, quinceañeras, weddings, anniversaries, there was a Tejano band there,” Ray, 25, says. “That’s what my dad listened to. Anytime he’d get together with my uncles, or any kind of family gathering, they’d always play that music.”

Ray understands Spanish but doesn’t speak it fluently (even with a few years of high school classes under his belt). But Tejano was still an integral part of his upbringing. It remains an integral part of Mexican-American culture throughout Texas.

“We’d be going to the ranch or to the deer lease or something, and my dad would want me to hear this certain song. He would literally play a snippet of it, stop it and translate the lyrics for me,” Ray remembers.

Ray’s new single, “Think About You,” embraces both sides of his heritage. It’s out Monday and is his first song to feature lyrics in Spanish. Ray’s original plan was to release a full album this year but those plans were thwarted by the ongoing pandemic.

“I was a little nervous at first when it was brought up. Not so much that I couldn’t sing it in Spanish, but I didn’t know how folks were gonna take it,” Ray says. “I know a lot of fans are gonna be surprised.”

“Think About You” will be Ray’s first song to get a proper national push, thanks to a pair of special guests. It features Chris Perez, Selena’s widower on guitar; and Matt Noveskey of Blue October on bass. Perez’s teaser posts alone have generated considerable fan excitement on social media. A live video featuring all three performers premieres exclusively at noon Monday at facebook.com/previewhouston. It will be Ray’s second performance in six months after a recent drive-in concert.

Ray graduated in 2017 from Texas A&M University-Kingsville with a bachelor's degree in industrial management and technology. Earlier this year, he received the Rising Star Award for those “who have achieved professional success and brought special honor to the university.”

Even before “Think About You,” Ray was an anomaly in the Texas country landscape. Only a handful of Mexican-American acts — Freddy Fender, Johnny Rodriguez, Emilio Navaira — have broken through the country music barrier. Fewer have done it singing even partially in Spanish.

That’s surprising because so many Latinos, especially in Texas, are loyal country music fans. The Country Music Association reports 15-percent growth among Hispanic listeners over the last few years. Not to mention so much of the culture, from boots to rodeos, draws from Mexican culture.

“I feel like I’m on the verge of finding that wider audience, but I also don’t want to stray too far from my heritage or my Tex-Mex roots,” Ray says.

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Quarantine kitchen

Robert Ray, like so many of us, has been spending a lot of time at home. He’s gotten back into working out and is learning how to play the piano. But he’s also been brushing up on another talent.

“I’m actually a huge fan of Gordon Ramsey. He has all these chef shows. He’s a very entertaining guy,” Ray says. “I’ve been trying to work on my cooking skills. I’ve been learning how to make the perfect steak, trying to work on my seasoning and everything.”

Dinner and a show? Sounds great to us.

— JG

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