Not your regular cowboys

The Mavericks from Miami are the wild cards in Country's conservative ranks.
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The Mavericks are probably the finest country band in the world. This sounds like less of a compliment than it actually is. At the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville last October, the band sauntered off with the gong for Vocal Group of the Year. Not too many Maverick guts would require busting to get them back on the podium next time round, and the next, and the time after that. Nashville, the capital of twang which launches a thousand solo careers a minute, is a traditionally infertile workplace for bands. Twosomes maybe, onesomes for sure, but foursomes? Once in a blue moon.

The other thing about the Mavericks is that they come from Miami Beach. Only Mary-Chapin Carpenter, a native of Washington DC with whom the Mavericks toured last autumn, can boast such inappropriate roots for a career based in Music City. And as would be statistically likely in any band from Miami, the Mavericks have a Cuban gene: singer and songwriter Raul Malo is of first-generation immigrant stock. Needless to say, the band gets on the conservative, rigidly playlisted radio in its adoptive city about as often as Cubans flee Florida for Havana.

Malo may be the creative voice of the Mavericks, but the job of meeting and greeting falls to the rhythm and press section, consisting of Robert Reynolds on bass, long locks and dreamy reminiscence, and Paul Deakin on drums, sensible crop and factual accuracy. Not being comparably blessed with the ability to sleep standing up in a corner, Malo and the latest guitarist, Nick Kane, are excused almost all publicity chores.

Reynolds's theme for today is "bandship", that precious collective state of mind that has kept the three founding members lock-tight since they formed in 1989. They lost their first guitarist, a kind of Pete Best figure, because he scored nul points on "camaraderie interaction". "He seemed to underestimate maybe the value of bandship," says Reynolds. "I'm careful on this issue, because when it comes to talent I'll be brutally honest and say that I could barely play. Raul was able to overlook my lack of ability because he knew what we were going after wasn't about technical genius, it was about a passion for the music. And then that bandship factor."

Deakin agrees that, in terms of difficulty, the Mavericks' music "is not rocket science". But if it's simple, it's sublimely, beautifully so. The influences are all from the croon age of easy listening before categories were such a big deal. Their fourth and most generically diffuse album, their equivalent of kd lang's mould-breaking Ingenue, is called Music For All Occasions (Deakin once played in a band whose members also mowed lawns, hence their calling card: "Music for all occasions... and lawn service").

Into the Mavericks' melodic melting-pot go the usual suspects from the first great age of Nashville: Cash, Cline, Holly and the Everlys. Such is Malo's direct line back to that more commercially ingenuous era, that some songs, which aren't straight covers, strike a chord in the memory with their primordial, timeless titles - "Neon Blue", "What a Crying Shame", "Foolish Heart", "Missing You", and the forthcoming single "Here Comes the Rain".

If there's one word that sums up the Mavericks, it's Orbisonian. The best of their covers, a version of "Blue Moon" for the soundtrack of Apollo 13, yielded a vocal of pure liquefied nectar from Malo. "Playing it with him," says Deakin, "I'll still get goosebumps." The song was produced by Nick Lowe, after they met on the recent Buddy Holly tribute album. "Nick's approach is very old-style," says Deakin. "We had a big room, maybe one overhead mike on the drums and an open sound, and performed it live. It was the most creative recording experience I think the band has had."

A record executive could easily dream up the scenario in which Malo peeled away to the front and became a de facto solo act, but that would reckon without the bandship factor. "Musically, it's rare when you have a singer- songwriter who is so open to ideas and arrangement," says Reynolds. "What Raul will bring in is a basic lump of clay which has been shaped a little before the band gets to hammer on it. If he gives a song into the band at that point, the song becomes a band song. He allows every individual's stamp to be put on it. It's been very cool not to dictate too much."

Apart from his ability to do press deep into the night, Reynolds can throw into the mix a uniquely able back-up singer in the form of his bride Trisha Yearwood. The closest Nashville gets to a new Patsy Cline duets with Malo on "Something Stupid", once performed by Sinatra pere et fille. "Whenever she's there, we call her country's Yoko Ono," says Deakin. "She's going to break up the band. It's more funny to relate to Trish that way because she's more famous than we are."

When their diaries allow, she also sidles onstage, though her own commitments keep her from joining the band on their most extensive British tour yet. "She likes being the chick singer coming up and doing a couple of unrehearsed numbers," says her husband. "I don't think she's ever had a real garage band." But then who in Nashville ever has?

n The Mavericks play London, Norwich, Manchester and Glasgow from 25- 30 January

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