Raul Malo knows a thing or two about multiculturalism. Born and raised in a salsa-rich Cuban community in Miami and enjoying a career built on country music, the former Maverick-turned-solo artist is an advocate for music without borders.
"I grew up in Miami," Malo says by phone from Annapolis, Md., a stop on the tour that brings him to Cat's Cradle on Tuesday. "Being there and being the son of immigrant Cuban parents does make a difference. I had never really traveled that much until the Mavericks got a record deal. It wasn't until later that I realized not everybody grows up listening to [salsa star] Celia Cruz and Buck Owens at the same time."
Musical diversity and a refusal to be shoehorned into any exclusive genre has defined Malo's career. The Mavericks, the progressive country band he fronted from 1991 until 2003, recorded six albums and churned out such hits as "What a Crying Shame" and "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down." The band's trademark was a heady mix of country, pop and Latin sounds.
His latest solo CD, "Lucky One," was released in March. It's typical Malo: Spicy salsa music, classic country, rhythmic rockabilly, intricate jazz and soaring ballads that seem to channel the spirit of the late Roy Orbison. While the panoply of styles might give radio's genre-obsessed program directors indigestion, for Malo it's as natural as a diet of ropa vieja and grits.
"My parents had a great record collection, so I listened to their music, too," he says. "Not only did we have Cuban music, but my dad is a country music fan and had a couple of Johnny Cash and Buck Owens records. My mom was into Sam Cooke and Elvis and Bobby Darin. And being in Miami, with all the reggae and calypso and ska music from the Caribbean, it was a great way to grow up and to listen to music."
With Malo as writer of one and co-writer of 11 tracks, "Lucky One" is his first album of original songs in seven years. Composed over a period of two years, the dozen songs are tailored to Malo's supple voice and eclectic tastes. They range from Mavericks-style country ("You Always Win") to the Orbisonesque ballad "Something Tells Me" and the romantic Latin rhythms of "Moonlight Kiss."
More than on previous albums, Malo bares his soul with the gleeful title track, the rueful reminiscence of "Haunting Me," the loss and sorrow of "One More Angel" and the anxious anticipation of "Ready for My Lovin'."
"I'm proud of this record," he says. "A lot of work went into it. A lot of songwriting went into it. I enjoyed the whole process. I think more than some of my other records, this one has a real personal piece of me. Having it be all originals, too, is part of it.
"This album was drawn from a long list of songs. The last couple of years, we did three albums of covers. A nice byproduct of that is that not only did I have time to write, but by the end of those albums I had a nice list of original songs. We had a nice list to choose from, and time to live with the material. ...
"This worked out just right, and (coproducer) Steve Berlin was instrumental in picking the songs. We had between 25 and 30 songs to choose from. We tried to pick the ones that sounded like an album, like a unit. And we went for our favorite songs."
On tour the past six weeks, Malo is pleased that shows are drawing crowds who seem to enjoy the new music as well as the surprises he builds in to his stage show. With his country career behind him, Malo doesn't garner much attention from mainstream radio. But last month he showcased the album on "The Tonight Show," his first appearance on the show as a solo artist.
Malo's audiences are as diverse as his music. They include fans from his Mavericks days, as well as younger followers.
"I guess that the eclecticism is what they like. I'm grateful for the work, and I'm grateful that people come out to see me."