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Neruda's Gardener

Tish Hinojosa cultivates folklore out of odes

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"I have laid some words out on the table," Tish Hinojosa sings in the opening lines of her new album, Sign of Truth. The words are the path to "a bright tomorrow in the distance," and while the CD is in spin, we get the fleeting sensation that "someday" is suddenly within our grasp.

Sign of Truth is a confident and mature album by one of the great practitioners of contemporary folk music. When Hinojosa plays folk, however, the genre takes on different connotations than any of the dozens of viable definitions of the genre.

"In some ways, it's a dangerous word to use," Hinojosa told the Indy from her home in Austin, Texas, last week, "because too many people, when you say folk music, they think of the Kingston Trio and old sing-alongs around the campfire, back in the '50s or something." Hinojosa describes a genre with room for compatriots like Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but when her songs are left to speak for themselves, they tell stories that seem to come not simply out of folk, but out of folklore.

Despite the unmistakable influence of socially conscious songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Hinojosa credits a professor of English and anthropology, Americo Paredes, as her most significant mentor. A vital force in the Chicano movement in the '60s and '70s, Paredes was 80 years old when Hinojosa met him. "Because I was searching for a song, some people got me together with him and we just started this apprenticeship program where he and I would meet whenever I was in town. I'd go over and he would play me songs on his guitar. It's kind of like he was passing the knowledge and his love for the border culture to somebody that he knew could use it and would know what to do with it."

She has used the knowledge to create a landscape populated with mystical characters and images that could be drawn from the old tales of her San Antonio childhood. There is a refreshing touch of the kind of mysticism Peter Rowan has let loose on his musical landscape, and Hinojosa recalls her days collaborating with Rowan, an early hero of hers, as "a huge honor." They share an appreciation for the element of mystique in their songwriting, mixing a sense of timelessness with a hint of the fantastic.

A habit of avoiding the obvious remains a hallmark of hers as she consistently defies expectation, avoiding the easy solution to a songwriting challenge in favor of a harder-earned lyric. Sign of Truth is filled with examples of her approach to rhyme, confidently making soft subtle rhymes out of words like embers and summer, palette and blanket. "Sometimes it just happens when playing with the language," she explained. "Here's the obvious rhyme I can do, but here's another way of saying that that sort of gives you a hint of rhyme. I don't like being real predictable. That's kind of one way of avoiding it."

Another way to avoid predictability is through lyrics just abstract enough to defy an easy, literal understanding but compelling enough in their imagery to strike listeners on target. Although her new album admittedly leans more toward pop than her previous efforts -- "I wanted something a little lighter and more straight ahead and direct" -- she resists the pop urge to spell everything out.

"If it leaves people wondering," Hinojosa explains, "I think it's all food for thought." The material on the album tends more toward personal insight than the activist and culturally specific songs she is often associated with. "I know my folk audience really likes the Mexican-Americanism, the stories, that kind of stuff. On this record, lyrically, I didn't want to bog down in social issues. I'd just been through a big upheaval, and divorce and change. I just really wanted something very straight ahead."

One of the most straightforward songs is the evocative "Fence Post," and its image of a neglected borderline, an old post wired standing up, broken and cut. "It was just where my heart was," Hinojosa said of the inspiration for the imagery. "That was during the really dark time a couple years ago. That's how I felt. Whenever you're driving on the highway you see a line of fence posts, and you'll see one that's kind of rotted, just being held by the wire from the other ones. You think, boy, why doesn't it just fall down?"

The intensely personal imagery of "feeling so forgotten/Dirty used and common" eventually gives way to the album's steady optimism, reaching its peak in the brightly carefree "Wildflowers." Even the magical imagery captured in lyrics that tell how "she feels as if she's fallen/Right into Neruda's garden" contain a hint of Hinojosa's musical aesthetic, celebrating the love of old songs, the belief "in what they're saying" and "the history they're saving." It is a welcome surprise to hear the refrain of Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" sneaking into the song's coda.

Hinojosa's folk-pop perspective comes from a merging of two of her most significant musical influences. "I probably see Baez and Rondstadt as my older sisters," she explained when tracing her heritage. "Baez was, of course, the big hero when I was 13 or 14. Any girl that picked up a guitar wanted to look like her and sound like her. Especially Catholic Mexican girls. And when it came to social issues, I think all that was formed for me in those early days because my favorite singer was singing about things like that."

Her willingness to be an activist through her music and to sing about her unique perspectives from the borderlands has drawn attention from some notable quarters. She gave a concert at the White House in 1996, and shortly after her Colorado performances, she'll have a similar engagement at the governor's mansion in Austin. Hinojosa accepted the invitation from George W. Bush, but admitted her feeling is that "hopefully he'll still be governor."

Being part of a liberal community in Austin that has been the national headquarters for compassionate conservatism recently typifies the kind of juxtaposition that marks Hinojosa's life and career. She is often categorized with easy labels that range from generalizations to mischaracterizations. Among the latter, she went through a difficult period of being labeled a tejano artist as a result of releasing her bilingual Dreaming from the Labyrinth/Sonar del Laberinto at approximately the same time that Selena, was murdered. "It was a far cry from anything tejano," Hinojosa explained. "It was ethereal and deep, it's not a jumpy accordion and synthesizer bustier-wearing kind of record."

Her music is often simplified as being representative of the new Texan wave of music exemplifieded by Austin artists like Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. Hinojosa is comfortable with her identity as a Texan, but admits to being "a little miffed" when that characterization overshadows all the other elements in her music. "I'm not that Texas," she points out. "I don't have a drawl and I don't wear my jeans in my boots." She is an original, plain and simple, an artist of conscience and of poetry who lays her songs out on the table with hope and conviction.

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