ZZ Top’s 1975 hit “Heard It On the X” is a tribute to the radio stations known as “border blasters.” Switched on starting in the 1930s, the border blasters were stations transmitting from the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border, blasting their AM signals into much of the southern half of the U.S.—and beyond (some could be heard as far away as Australia and Finland, according to Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, authors of the book Border Radio). Being Mexican meant these 100,000+ watt behemoths (some with as many as 1 million watts) didn’t have to abide by FCC rules and regulations, and being on the border meant that they were often truly bilingual, mixing up a cocktail of conjunto, rock, country, tejano, jazz, mariachi, and R&B. Stations such as XER, XEG, and XELO ruled the border landscape until radio consolidation brought them down in the early 1980s. [The “X” in the song’s title stands for the fact that all of these border blasters, like all Mexican radio stations, had call letters that began with “X.”]
“Heard It On the X” is now also the title track of the new album by the Tex-Mex collective Los Super 7, who’ve crafted an album-length tribute to those border blasters many of the group’s rotating cast of members grew up on. Albums this self-consciously diverse often fail to work precisely because of their diversity, but Heard It On the X works thanks to it. Mariachi horns (“Ojitos Traidores,” one of a pair of Spanish-language entries here) rub up against a western swing tune with Lyle Lovett on vocal duties (the Bob Wills song “My Window Faces the South”) and the aforementioned ZZ Top cover, while in the corner, a swaying R&B ballad (“Talk to Me,” very class of ’66) makes nice with a garage-rock rave-up (the Doug Sahm tune “I’m Not That Kat (Anymore),” sung here by John Hiatt). The Bobby Fuller cut “Let Her Dance” sounds positively Marshall Crenshaw-esque, taken on by Joe Ely. And it all works, reveling in its diversity and simultaneously making it kind of irrelevant.
This is true Americana, American roots music, a 12-song honest-to-God musical melting pot, genres be damned (and ignored); none of these songs sounds jarring next to its neighbors. Producers Dan Goodman (the man behind Los Super 7) and Rick Clark (whose free CDs he compiles for Oxford American are much-loved by myriad music lovers) called in Texan guitar great Charlie Sexton to assist in putting together an album they hoped would be classic. He put together his own band (including Tin Machine’s Hunt Sales pounding the skins) for about half of the album’s tracks, recruiting the wonderful Calexico to backup most of the rest. Texas music legend Lloyd Maines—yes, father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines—adds pedal steel to a track, and Flaco Jimenez plays accordion on another, while artists from Rodney Crowell and the Mavericks’ Raul Malo to Delbert McClinton and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown take turns on vocal duties.
Malo’s “The Song of Everything” (another Sahm cut) is a particular highlight, a smoky, jazzy gem (thanks in large part to the West Side Horns’ playing) smack-dab where you don’t expect to find it (let alone betwixt Crowell’s Buddy Holly cover “Learning the Game” and Rick Trevino’s aforementioned “Ojitos Traidores”). But there’s not a weak link to be found here: the song selection is fairly flawless, as is the playing, as is the pairing of singers with songs. Sexton and company could have smoothed out this album’s rough edges, but they celebrate the cross-pollination from one genre to the next, in the process creating what should, in fact, go down as a classic American album. Heard It On the X is the best album 2005’s offered thus far.